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The Social Isolation Effects on Mental Health

Published by Courtney Hall

The social isolation effects on mental health are being seen all over the world!  In most parts of the country, we’re living under conditions that we have never experienced before. For the first time in our lives, we’ve been sheltering in place for almost four months now, with an uncertain duration of social isolation stretching before us, probably followed by sporadic lockdowns over the next year or two. It’s unprecedented, uncertain, and unnerving at best. And the long-term effect on our mental health is still unfolding. What we do know is that this is not helping our mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, perceived social isolation is linked to adverse health consequences, including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity at every stage of life. Moreover, the longer the loneliness continues, the worse its impact on overall well-being.

Social Isolation Symptoms

Some people poke fun at the seeming simplicity of what we’re being asked to do when we’re told to isolate ourselves, comparing it to being asked to go to war as opposed to sitting on our couches with delivered food and streaming television. But according to researchers who study psychology and anthropology, sheltering in place can be traumatic. Social isolation leads to depression and anxiety, and the lonelier and more isolated we feel, the greater the risk for emotional problems. We are ‘social animals,’ with early historical survival depending on our ability to rely on others. Accordingly, like anything we need to survive — like food and water — social contact is critically important — or at least, that’s what our brains think.

Interaction with other humans provides a crucial source of psychological stimulation, offering us a diverse social environment that helps us to maintain optimal cognitive functions. People who are isolated for extended periods of time may face short-term memory loss and trouble exercising executive functions. What’s more, without the constant stimuli we face when we’re out and about, our dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter) levels may begin to fall. Without the dopamine boost we receive from successful social interactions, we may feel increasing apathy and lassitude. Consider that to a certain extent, our sense of self comes from our interaction with others. Taken to the extreme, we might think of what happens to prisoners who are placed in solitary confinement.


Social Isolation Outcomes

In our current state of social isolation, shelter-in-place orders have an additional problematic dimension: confining ourselves with others can lead to surging social tension. NASA selects astronauts in part based on their personalities so that the chances of them working well together as a team is high, then trains them to incorporate meditation into their daily lives to help them endure the isolation and confinement that come with their jobs. We haven’t received training to prepare us for this forced togetherness even as we’re more irritable and anxious due to social isolation.


Fighting Social Isolation Effects

When dealing with social isolation and the many ill effects of social isolation, faces, voices and emotional connections can all help. The more we can replicate real-life interactions, the better, even when we aren’t seeing people face-to-face. During this difficult time, NAMI Chats is here for you. NAMI Chats volunteers are available to answer questions, offer support, give referrals to resources and provide practical next steps. NAMI Chats is a free peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with a mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public. Staff and volunteers are experienced, well-trained and able to provide guidance.

Nancy SussmanNAMI Chats is helmed by Nancy Sussman, who has a rich history with NAMI CCNS. She first became involved with NAMI CCNS by participating in our programming, then became an active volunteer as a School Outreach Coordinator and Family Support Group Facilitator at Highland Park Hospital. She was soon hired as Program Director and worked in this role for five years, collaborating tirelessly with Development Director Sue Ockerlund and Executive Director Nancy Carstedt to grow the agency’s programming.

When COVID-19 first set in and the stay-at-home order began, she knew that the effects of social isolation would hit those suffering from mental illnesses hard. With lived experience, she also knew that parents and loved ones of those struggling would be especially concerned. At the same time, the mental health resource landscape was changing by the minute, and she knew that staying relevant at all times was critical. To that end, she spearheaded the launch of NAMI Chats, which keeps constantly abreast of what resources are available at that moment to those in need. In this time of isolation, connecting people with those who can help them is crucial.

Whether you are an individual struggling with mental illness or a family member/ caregiver who needs resources…. or perhaps just a phone conversation with a fellow member of the NAMI CCNS family, please call 847-716-2252 and leave a message for our resource team; your call will be returned within 24 hours.

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