The Effects of Loneliness, Social Isolation, and COVID-19 on our Mental Health

Posted on : June 27, 2021 by Clinic One on Mental Health


What is Loneliness?

Loneliness has been considered the latest global health epidemic, which is understood as the discrepancy between a person’s preferred and actual level of social contact and relationships (Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2010).

It is a psychological condition that encompasses a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, and a feeling of insecurity and also has serious health implications.

Loneliness also includes a cognitive element in which unpleasant emotional experiences arise because of a discrepancy between the expected and current state of interpersonal relationships (Lam et al., 2016).


Effects of Loneliness

Loneliness is a subjective feeling of isolation. Accumulating evidence has shown that loneliness is associated with adverse health outcomes including a decline in mental and physical as well as cognitive wellbeing.

Those who suffer from loneliness are shown to have impaired immune function, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, increased risk for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and risk of developing cognitive disabilities such as dementia (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

Additionally, some of the reported psychosocial risk factors for loneliness include having few close friendships and relationships, old age, isolation, lower socioeconomic status, and worsening physical health. 


Prevalence of Loneliness

As people are getting increasingly connected through the digital world, there has been over a 40% rise in chronic loneliness among adults since the 1970s (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

Moreover, the reported prevalence of loneliness in the US ranges from 17% to 57% in the general population and is higher in people with cognitive and mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and dementia (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

These rates have risen dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic as economic and personal stressors along with social isolation have been an inimical part of our lives, leaving people feeling more lonely than in previous years.


Relationship between Loneliness and Social Isolation 

Although sometimes considered synonymous, loneliness is distinct from but may be interrelated with social isolation.

Social isolation is an objective lack of social relationships or the absence of an active social life.

In other words, loneliness and social isolation are different but related concepts. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, loneliness can lead to social isolation, and both may also occur at the same time.

As per their life circumstances, people can experience different levels of social isolation and loneliness, fluctuating between these states.


Loneliness and social isolation also share many factors that are associated with increasing the likelihood of people experiencing each, such as deteriorating mental, physical, and cognitive health.

It is important to learn the difference between these terms to better understand how to support those who are experiencing loneliness vs those who are socially isolated.

This is because an individual can be socially isolated but not feel lonely but can experience loneliness even when surrounded by people. 

Shifting gears to social isolation, which has been a critical practice for slowing the spread of COVID-19 for the past year and a half.


Effects of Social Isolation

Due to the increased social isolation and quarantine practices being implemented, new findings have shown social distancing and workplace closures increasing the prevalence of loneliness around the world.

Although social isolation is not akin to loneliness, early indications in the COVID-19 context show that almost half of 18- to 24-year-olds are lonely during the lockdown (Loades et al., 2020).

Moreover, reports show a total of 1,277 people committed suicide in Nepal within the span of 2 months during the first lockdown period in March 2020 (Poudel, 2020). On average, this data is 20% higher than the previous year, which is alarming (Poudel, 2020).

With the economic, financial, personal, health, housing, academic, and employment stress that was brought upon the world by the pandemic, loss of friendships, close ones, relationships, and social isolation played a huge role in increasing the suicide rates of the country. 

Additionally, while people are staying socially isolated, patients who are infected with COVID-19 face judgment and social rejection along with the inherent stress and anxiety caused by the infection.

This added discrimination and rejection is detrimental to one’s mental wellbeing, which may lead to the patient feeling lonely and developing depression, anxiety, etc.

Similarly, older adults, children, and other dependent house members are at risk for domestic abuse during the lockdown. It can be extremely difficult for them to speak up and seek help from others due to the risk of infection.

Similar to infected patients, the victims of domestic abuse are at a high risk of experiencing loneliness and psychological distress, which may emerge as various mental illnesses. 


Clinic One Approach on Emotional Health Support in Nepal


With the rates of loneliness, abuse, and mental health issues increasing in our country, Clinic One has been working to develop an easily utilizable emotional support service for those needing emotional support, crisis intervention, and informal counseling.

We will be launching an emotional support hotline in Nepal, and a text line from July 7th, 2021, which can be utilized by all Clinic One patients as well as the general population of Nepal.

Furthermore, the service of a text line was developed after considering the lack of privacy in people’s homes as sharing out one’s struggles may be extremely difficult for some patients.

This free service was developed to provide psychological support to those who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, those who do not have access to mental health care, and anyone who is feeling lonely, isolated, or simply wants to vent out and talk to a friendly voice.

With this new launch, we are hoping to make a positive impact by building the foundation to a more accessible mental healthcare system, spread awareness about mental health, and break the stigma around mental illnesses by being a service of support people can rely on. 

In conclusion, loneliness can be extremely detrimental to one’s physical, mental, and cognitive health, and social isolation can indirectly lead to loneliness, leading to the same damaging effects.

Due to the perilous nature of the pandemic, social isolation was extremely necessary to minimize the spread of infections.

However, this prolonged lockdown, isolation, quarantine, and curfew period also brought many fatalities due to suicide and held a large number of people hostages to loneliness and mental illnesses.

With the increasing rates of domestic abuse along with mental distresses, it is crucial to prioritize one’s mental wellbeing, check up on our loved ones, and seek help if able/accessible.

In order to provide a more accessible service, Clinic One has launched our very first free emotional support hotline and text line, which can be utilized by the general population of Nepal. 




References

Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218–227. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

Lam, C. L. M., Yu, J., & Lee, T. M. C. (2016). Perceived loneliness and general cognitive status in community-dwelling older adults: the moderating influence of depression. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 24(5), 471–480. https://doi.org/10.1080/13825585.2016.1226246

Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M. N., Borwick, C., & Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(11). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009

Poudel, K., & Subedi, P. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on socioeconomic and mental health aspects in Nepal. The International journal of social psychiatry, 66(8), 748–755. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020942247 



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