Social Distancing Doesn’t Have to Mean Social Isolation
We’ve heard lots of things since the coronavirus pandemic started from lawmakers, leaders, and politicians. While the details are endless and the changes are rapid, the common underlying message is: nonessential workers should stay at home. Social distancing is our most promising opportunity to slow the spread, flatten the curve, and keep our communities safe.
However, social distancing is also isolating and induces feelings of loneliness and separation, as social plans and gatherings are limited through state orders. Some families are separated from high-risk loved ones, students are home from school and expected to readjust to a new normal, with limited connection to their social circles or internet access. As a graduating law student, I had to realize that after working three years for my degree, I wouldn’t experience a graduation ceremony or celebration at the end of this long road. And I know that’s #firstworldprobs, but can I grieve for a second? Lacking a sense of community has damaging affects on our physical and mental health.
Experiencing loneliness and isolation can impact people’s physical and mental health such that they are more susceptible to poor health outcomes like depression, obesity, smoking, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity. These health consequences are always severe, but they are especially alarming during a pandemic. And the intensity of the impact is compounded by social and economic factors. For example:
- LGBTQ people face higher levels of isolation due to discrimination, fear, and other factors. While 53 percent of LGBTQ elders report feeling isolated, they are twice as likely to be single and live alone.
- People with disabilities may spend more time alone, are less likely to cohabit with a partner, or may have substantial periods of unemployment — leading to higher rates of isolation.
- Elders experience more isolation and loneliness due to life changes like retirement and death of loved ones.
- Immigrants and refugees may face isolation due to language barriers, separation from family and friends, and difficulty building meaningful social relationships in a new culture – especially in light of this administration’s relentless attacks on immigrants.
- Caregivers, including young millennial caregivers, feel isolated from their peers due to the sacrifices they must make to meet caregiving responsibilities.
But this is not an exhaustive list. Survivors of domestic violence, people experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and many other groups of people may feel isolated and have less immediate access to community and support.
This is a gender issue, too. Even before COVID-19, the state of women’s mental health in America was cause for concern. For example, women disproportionately experience depressive disorders and anxiety, sexual and domestic violence, gender discrimination, income inequality due to the wage gap, and caretaking responsibilities. Women and girls of color in particular experience unique challenges at the intersection of gender and race, which in turn lead to more trauma and mental health conditions.
There are many ways leaders and policymakers can support women and families experiencing social isolation in the COVID-19 crisis:
- Congress should include provisions in the next package to increase access to the internet, particularly for families who have lower incomes or live in rural areas. Internet access keeps people connected to others and allows them to maintain their sense of community.
- Access to telehealth services, particularly online and on-the-phone counseling services, will help minimize the impact of isolation on mental health. Mental health services must be provided regardless of coverage status with no cost-sharing.
- Federal and state investment in community-based approaches to mental health is necessary to build out the infrastructure for long-term and permanent change. In conjunction with public investment, non-profits and other organizations can provide members/constituents with virtual community-building programs and facilitate virtual gatherings.
- Mindfulness practices like meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, and screen-free time reduce depression and anxiety, and make the unknown feel more manageable.
- Challenge yourself to connect with one friend each day. Write a letter or email, video chat, text, or do a group TikTok challenge.
We must increase social connection at every level—individually and institutionally—during this time. This unprecedented experience requires innovative and inclusive responses that acknowledge unique experiences and barriers and decrease isolation. Because on the other side of this pandemic we want communities filled with joy, connection, and togetherness.