Social isolation puts strain on mental health

Social isolation can place burden on mental health struggles

Practicing a bit of self care might help.
Published: April 23, 2020
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dedicated an entire section on its website specifically to “Daily Life & Coping,” containing pages of advice on how to retain a sense of levelheadedness during coronavirus.

There’s no doubt that this pandemic — and the extensive quarantine that goes along with it — is having a significant impact on people’s mental health. People are grappling with many different stressors from having their normal daily lives be completely altered.

“I think that [quarantine] can be emotionally and mentally and physically draining, and a lot of people are having to figure it out,“ said Syracuse University senior Meghan Nelligan, who is also president of student-run mental health organization Active Minds.

Currently, mental health is being discussed across news publications while society braces itself against a tumultuous, rapidly changing reality. The Washington Post recently reported a poll indicating that almost half of the country feels the coronavirus is harming their mental health. The New York Times has published multiple opinion pieces on the ways the virus is negatively impacting our mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has offered thirty messages for the population to read, in attempt to help us retain a sense of mental and emotional stability.

In its regular Coronavirus update letters to the SU community, the university often lists the mental health services it offers to students, such as the “ADA Live!” special podcast series from a member of Mental Health America, or the Wellness Portal.

Besides an overall sense of fear that a pandemic can generate, quarantine and social isolation can also have a considerably negative impact on people’s mental wellbeing. People can feel rattled by life being upended, which can result in some people seeing their mental health suffer, while others — who were already struggling with mental illness before the coronavirus — see their condition worsening.

In order to learn how to mentally persevere in this difficult period of isolation, we must first understand why we are feeling the things that we are, and where these feelings are coming from.

Carolyn Goldman, a clinical social worker and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) therapist in New Jersey, said that she’s seen a wide range of effects on people’s mental health during the quarantine.

Although some people have felt relief in working from home and being able to spend more time with family, others feel unsettled.

“We know the things that keep us afloat: we go to the gym, we see our friends, we go out to the movies, we could travel. This is the stuff that we have built that gives us a fulfilling life,” Goldman said. “And now, all of a sudden, we need to rebuild how to have a fulfilling life within our home.”

Goldman, who co-founded The Behavioral Therapy Collective that focuses on DBT treatment, said the current situation and environment in which we’re living is conducive to anxiety and depression.

“I think depression is massive right now. Human beings are neurobiologically programmed to want human connection,” Goldman said.

She pointed to the way in which societies first formed, where people traveled around in tribes and split up into groups to forage for food while others tended to the babies, explaining that this is how early human beings knew to stay alive.

“How to stay connected to people while being socially distant is a challenge because it’s brand new,” Goldman said. “We’ve never had to live like this.”

Both an adjunct professor at SU’s iSchool and a yoga teacher, Rebecca Mannion said that isolating herself has been challenging, and going for walks on empty streets that were once heavily populated can feel lonely.

While she has the company of her family during self-isolation, Mannion mentioned new stresses have surfaced such as transitioning her two kids to online learning.

“Fatigue that comes with being online so much has been something we are cognizant of,” Mannion said. “Our children, 10 and 12 years old, are also on Zoom and school learning platforms during the day. We try and take non-screen type breaks, walks, reading, Lego, games, playing with pets and exploring our backyard – or naps. Naps are good.”

Nelligan, an English major, has been experiencing an increase in anxiety while quarantining at her parents’ home in New Jersey. She practices yoga, using online videos to help her cope. There is a multitude of factors at play right now that contribute to students’ anxiety while quarantining, she said.

Nelligan said the challenges for fellow students tie directly to their personal situations – whether it’s the uncertainty of the job market for graduating seniors or merely readjusting to life at home for others.

“I know a lot of people are losing the jobs that they thought they would have,” Nelligan said.  “Then, people who aren’t seniors, we don’t know their circumstances at home. Maybe they come home and they don’t want to be home, or they’re not doing well in a class because they aren’t good online learners.”

As the president of Active Minds and a member since her freshman year, Nelligan ensures that the group continues to carry out its mission of changing the stigmatized conversation around mental illness and educating students on resources available on campus that can help to those who are struggling.

This week, the executive board of Active Minds is starting a series on the group’s Instagram and Facebook pages, where each board member will post about how they are personally practicing self-care during coronavirus.

A phrase that has circulated amongst psychologists and medical professionals is that of societal grief – the idea that we are all simultaneously grieving right now.

“I think people are mourning normalcy,” Goldman said. “We’re having to create a new normal while in isolation … so I think that we’re grieving a lot of what we thought was going to happen, like with college kids in their last semester of school that aren’t getting graduation or goodbyes with their friends.”

During a time of family togetherness – with the recent holidays of Easter and Passover, holidays that normally bring extended family together – isolation can be particularly hard, she said.

“I think people are grieving tradition, which makes us feel safe. And I think we’re grieving the way that the world was. The way that the world was feels unfathomable at this time,” Goldman said.

In understanding the origin of our emotions during this time of social isolation, we are able to recognize the most efficient ways to battle feelings of anxiety, depression and overall loneliness. Many people have turned to self care as a good way of mentally coping during quarantine.

“Self care, absolutely. This is the most important thing,” said Goldman. “And what I want to note about self care is that self-care is not easy stuff. I think when we think about self care, we think of eating chocolate in a bubble bath, and although that is great and although that definitely counts as self-care, self-care is taking care of ourselves; which means cooking healthy food, creating a schedule, creating a sleep schedule, still going to bed at normal times, not staying up till 3 a.m. watching Netflix.”