Dr Matthew J. Monnot, University of San Francisco, writes about social isolation and its increase with recent social lockdowns brought about by COVID-19. Social isolation and loneliness have similar mental health consequences: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Policy makers need to create social psychological protective measures in tandem with physically protective actions.
There are currently two intertwined modern global pandemics. One of these pandemics, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), has receiving widespread attention from policy makers and news media. A related pandemic, the experience of social isolation, has been largely ignored by policy makers. The latter pandemic is being bolstered by policies enacted to slow the impact of the former. The latter pandemic is also potentially more lethal. Social isolation shows a mortality rate comparable to behaviors more commonly recognized as fatal, including smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol.
Solitary lifestyle is a common trend of modern economies. Beginning in the 1960s, particularly in early industrialized countries, the percentage of people living alone accelerated. Recent data shows that individuals living in more developed countries, as indicated by the Human Development Index (HDI), are the most likely live alone. People are putting off getting married until later in life, resulting in more single households. Perhaps relatedly the greatest increase in groups living alone has been seen among middle aged adults. Those in more densely urban populous regions of the US such as Manhattan and Washington D.C. are most likely to live in single households. Much of the research on social isolation is focused on the elderly, however current isolation-related mortality rates are most prevalent among middle aged adults.
COVID-19 has created a psychosocial maelstrom as it relates to contributing factors to suicidal ideation, which include trouble with relationships, substance abuse, physical health, job loss, financial issues, and housing stress.
While greater social isolation associated with living alone is not synonymous with feelings of loneliness the two are highly interrelated. There are two overlapping conceptualizations of isolation that involve objective isolation and subjective loneliness. Objective isolation is identified as a pervasive lack of social contact or communication, lack of social activities, not having a confidant, and living alone versus with others. Subjective loneliness involves feelings of isolation, feeling isolated during problematic situations, missing companionship, and an absence of feelings of belongingness. It’s important to note that while these objective and subjective conceptualizations differ their consequences do not. Both objective isolation and subjective loneliness increase odds of mortality to similar degrees. Large scale empirical research shows loneliness, social isolation, and living alone increase risk of mortality by 26%, 29%, and 32%, respectively (see Holt-Lunstad and coauthors for review). Similar to isolation, feelings of loneliness are as predictive of early mortality as obesity and smoking cigarettes. In short, both real and perceived social isolation are damaging to individual longevity.
Current measures taken to combat Covid, which largely involve physical distancing and isolation, are creating an array of mental health issues that represent a burgeoning global crisis. Social disconnectedness has a high comorbidity (the simultaneous presence of multiple disorders) rate with other mental health issues. More than half of US citizens report that Covid has had an adverse effect on their mental health. Emergency services such as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have seen an eightfold increase in contact during the pandemic. It appears that shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines have increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. The rate of depression has tripled in the US during the pandemic (reaching 27.8%) Severe depression is reportedly 7.5 times greater than it was prior to the pandemic. Compared to 2018 suicidal ideation was approximately doubled in spring of 2019. Suicide is often related to multiple factors, and, COVID-19 has created a psychosocial maelstrom as it relates to contributing factors to suicidal ideation, which include trouble with relationships, substance abuse, physical health, job loss, financial issues, and housing stress. Likely due to maladaptive coping mechanisms, substance abuse has also increased. Excessive consumption of alcohol has increased. The American Medical Association warned of an increase in Opioid overdoses as well.
Computer mediated communication has become ubiquitous during recent social lockdowns; however it is not a cure for isolation and loneliness. In fact, amount of time spent on one’s computer (“screen time”) is related to reductions in well-being. While video conferencing is better for mental health than email or texting it isn’t effective proxy for relational needs of employees. Additionally, it is more cognitively taxing for individuals to rely more heavily on verbal communication than cues associated with in-person contact – an effect that is now being referred to as “zoom fatigue.” Finally, technological delays in online meeting transmission cause others to seem less friendly, thereby enhancing feelings of social disconnection.
Loneliness interventions are not only effective, but have long term benefits that can last years.
Fortunately, social psychology offers effective solutions to combat mental health consequences. There are four broad categories of interventions typically utilized to combat social isolation and loneliness. These interventions include social support, exposure to social situations, social skill development, and correction of maladaptive cognition. Two of these intervention types, social support and exposure, primarily reduce social isolation. The other two, social skill development and correction of maladaptive cognition, primarily address feeling of loneliness. Taken together these interventions should be complimentary in that they not only reduce social isolation, but also take advantage of social and computer mediated interactions by enabling the individual the capacity to benefit from connectedness. Loneliness interventions are not only effective, but have long term benefits that can last years. In fact, improved social relationships have been shown to be more effective at reducing mortality risk compared to other health interventions such as smoking cessation, abstinence from alcohol, and rehabilitative exercise.
The modern trend toward segregating oneself from society has become a policy mandate. This protective necessity has escalated our current mental health crisis. Nearly all of the more than 300 million US population is now, or was at one time, mandated to socially isolate via stay-at-home orders. Policy makers will need to create social psychological protective measures in tandem with physically protective actions.
Matthew J. Monnot
Associate Professor Matthew J. Monnot is an experienced researcher and consultant in the field of organizational behavior. Monnot’s current research interests are focused on employee well-being, organizational change, and international management. He has been published in such top-ranked journals as the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Psychological Assessment, Applied Psychology, Social Indicators Research, and others.
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