Isolation, Anxiety, and Depression: Mental Health and Coronavirus

In hard-hit Milan, Italy, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, people emerge on their balconies to join in singing and dancing, March 14, 2020.

The present public health crisis understandably focuses mostly on those who are infected with coronavirus and in need of emergency treatment. A more hidden aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that will need serious attention in the long run is the impact on mental health. The isolation required for social distancing and the negative effects of unemployment and business losses are major downsides of the lockdown of society. Correlation between loneliness and poor physical health has been well established. A lack of social connections can be a risk factor like smoking, high blood pressure, or obesity. Although social isolation is often unhealthy, under the present circumstances it is unavoidable, recommended, or even demanded. But as Jamil Zaki, a psychology professor at Stanford University, points out: “Not sheltering in place will create more illness, which will create more grief and more loss.”

Before coronavirus, the nation had already been diagnosed as suffering from a so-called loneliness epidemic. People who are isolated face an increased risk for depression and cognitive decline. Closely connected to this “epidemic” are “diseases of despair”—alcohol and drug addictions often tied to depression that can result in overdose or suicide. These maladies could now be made worse as a result of “mandatory loneliness.”

A Kaiser Foundation poll conducted in early April notes that 45 percent of Americans are experiencing negative impacts from worry and stress due to COVID-19. The social isolation that stay-at-home orders require is reinforced by social distancing in public. Besides having fewer opportunities to see family or friends, many people are cut off from the groups that may have provided them with important psychological support—from religious services and recovery meetings to civic clubs and sports-related hangouts. As a result, we are beset by fears over our own health (or that of others), anxiety about economic insecurity, and grief over loss, or of being separated from a sick loved one in the hospital.

What to do while isolated? Engage in a creative activity; join, if you can, regular videoconferences with friends or family; revive the old-style phone call; culture a sourdough starter. As astronaut Scott Kelly suggests, going outside—that is, if you’re on Earth—can be good for your health. (Unfortunately, some communities have shut down parks and other public spaces.) A national Crisis Text Line has been set up to connect people to trained counselors for free, 24/7 confidential support—just text CRISIS to 741-741. As Dr. Zaki suggests, “Remembering that our decision to be alone is one that we make together can be helpful. . . . The longer it goes on, the more it does feel like we are sacrificing something for a greater good.”

Image credit: © Piero Cruciatti/Alamy

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