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Psychological impact of social isolation

14 April 2020 Dr Jacques Jordaan, University of the Free State

All South African citizens are by now aware of the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus.

Our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, placed the entire country in a state of lockdown to limit the spread of the virus in South Africa. Schools, tertiary institutions, churches, and numerous businesses (which do not provide essential services) had to close. The lockdown aims to ensure that citizens stay at home, isolate themselves from others, and that those who can work from home should do so. The consequence and reality, however, is physical and social isolation, which of course also means that many people are currently alone and lonely.

Working from home

There are several benefits to working from home; for example, you can manage your own time, work in comfortable clothes, and you can work undisturbed and with less interruptions. Although the lockdown – and thus social isolation – will only last for (maybe) 21 days, there are psychological disadvantages associated with social isolation. Many people could soon become discouraged and demotivated because of the time away from others due to social isolation. Social isolation is the absence of social interaction, contact, and relationships with loved ones, colleagues, strangers, and even society as a whole. Humans, by nature, are social beings who strive towards social interaction with others, and social interaction is essential for people's well-being and survival. Although it is also natural to occasionally seek alone time, the effect of social isolation can have negative consequences for the emotional well-being of individuals.

Consequences of social isolation

Studies have shown that long-term social isolation has dire consequences for people's physical and mental health, such as increased risk of premature death and higher tendencies towards depression. Still, social isolation – even for a few weeks – can also have a negative psychological impact on people's lives. Social isolation can lead to feelings of despair and loneliness, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and sleep difficulties. Furthermore, in times of social isolation, individuals tend to exhibit more forms of unhealthy behaviour than usual, such as smoking and drinking more alcohol. Feelings of loneliness tend to worsen when individuals are isolated with people with whom they do not have a close relationship and, therefore, loneliness becomes a more significant struggle during times of social isolation. This can turn into a vicious cycle, leading to more loneliness and depression if not dealt with. During these isolation periods, individuals may even become complacent, and consequently do not have goals and routines.

Social isolation will, however, affect people differently. More extroverted people will long for social engagement with others and might feel as if they want to climb the walls. They will just want to go shopping and spend time with others. More introverted individuals may enjoy this alone time and spend time taking long baths and reading books. However, everyone will start to experience social isolation negatively at some point. Families will, for example, not be used to these extended periods together, and this may lead to increased conflict between family members. Individuals with big homes can spend time in their gardens and exercise on their lawns, but what about those individuals living in overcrowded flats or informal accommodations. Such individuals may be more inclined to experience depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Individuals with drinking and smoking habits may become more dependent on these substances during the lockdown. Also keep in mind those individuals who have small children who are now home for several weeks and need to be kept busy and entertained by their parents. Parents are not used to being responsible for keeping their children busy productively.

Be social via social media

People might still be fine and feel good now, but we have not yet reached the halfway point of the lockdown, and how will individuals cope if the lockdown is extended. There is, of course, hope. It is important to remember that although people are currently isolated, they can still attempt to be social by using various forms of social media. Recent studies have shown that individuals may experience less loneliness when interacting with others through various forms of social media. Accordingly, individuals need to make more contact with others and reach out to those that they have not heard from in a while. Social interaction is crucial, as many of us need social interaction to cope with daily challenges. However, also beware of negative content or fake news. Social interaction via the internet might not fulfil everyone’s needs as with interpersonal communication and interaction, but it still allows us to experience a sense of congregation and community.

Stay positive

The reality is, however, that many people also do not have access to the internet and social media, and therefore cannot communicate with others. It then becomes essential that people should continue with certain routines in their lives and to not just sit in front of the television. People still have to set goals (even smaller goals) for themselves and try to achieve them. Everyone should try to change their perspective by trying to stay positive. People need to attempt any form of exercise and keep their minds occupied with books or brain games. Fortunately, when it comes to children, most schools have provided parents with study material to keep their children busy educationally. Alternatively, parents should create some form of structure and routine for their children during the lockdown. Families can play board games and create their own fun activities. Children should also be allowed to engage with their friends via social media if they become lonely. And parents should allow their children to share their worries and concerns openly. Individuals need to be prepared, because when this mandatory period of isolation ends, everyone will have to resume their normal activities.

Get help

If not addressed, these experiences of overwhelming loneliness, sadness or lack of meaning may continue long after the lockdown has ended. Individuals who experience depression and loneliness after the lockdown should reach out to others, try to eat healthy foods, do fun things, and exercise more. Such individuals should also consider contacting mental healthcare professionals for assistance. They can also visit the South African Depression and Anxiety Group's website or Facebook page for help.

Social distancing is vital at this stage, but as South African citizens, we must remember that we are not going through this alone. We are isolated from others, but together we are all fighting the same battle against COVID-19.

[i] Dr Jacques Jordaan, is a Lecturer and Undergraduate Coordinator: Psychology Programme Director: B.Soc.Sc. Faculty: The Humanities

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