A recently-published paper from Tulane University’s School of Social Work finds what we already knew to be true — isolation is bad for mental health. The school has developed a website to help. New Orleans Public Radio talked with one of the authors about how to stay sane during a global pandemic.
Tegan Wendland: Historically, people have really come together in times of crisis. There's a whole field of research on this. But the nature of this virus necessitates that we socially distance, which is obviously the exact opposite of what we need [emotionally]. So what might be the long-term mental health implications of this long period of isolation?
Patrick Bordnick: Long-term, if people isolate, we're going to see increases in depression. Everyone says, ‘I feel exhausted right now.’ There's a reason for that. And it's totally OK because we're all feeling it. Right now, we have our daily life stressors. Now, add on the pandemic. Going to the grocery store, whether you liked that or not pre-pandemic, now you go, it's a sense of fight or flight, right? Just going to the grocery store. So we can't even do a general daily activity like that without being worried or concerned for our safety. And human beings are not built to constantly be at a high state of stress. And what happens is we start to get exhausted. So I tell people, give yourself credit. If you get out of the bed in the morning, brush your teeth, take your shower, whatever you do, and you just are prepared to start the day — if that's all you do, give yourself credit for that, because that's a heck of a lot to do with everything that's going on in the world.
What are some ways for people to get social support without coming within 6 feet of each other?
There's ways to connect, but we need to understand that it's different. We need to accept and grieve that we're losing some of the ways we connect. But don't let that be an end point. I make it a point to call at least one person in my phone contact list. It could be someone I hadn't heard from in six months or whatever, and say, 'Hey, how are you doing? What are you doing? How your friends and family?' Making some sort of social connection like that, I think, is important.
There's been a lot of research on what's called the 'loneliness epidemic' in America and other Western countries. The UK even has a minister of loneliness. And this was all before COVID. So how might the pandemic exacerbate the existing challenges of an increasingly isolated culture?
I think for years we often have heard people say, ‘I don't know my neighbors. I don't know people that live right next door to me.' So I think over time we've seen that and people are isolating even pre-pandemic. You see, people get in their own family, in their own lifestyle, their own space, and over time that can build up. And I think with the pandemic and this idea of socially distancing, people are feeling like the need to isolate to get away from the pandemic or the virus, but it's just having the opposite effect. You can still say stay socially connected, but physically distanced. And I think that's getting us the wrong messaging. And I think people need to connect in whichever way they can right now, because if we don't, people will become more lonely. People will become distraught or potentially depressed as they get further away from others around them.
I think it's especially hard for those of us who are alone with no partners or children. So what tips do you have for singles? You know, it can't be healthy for us to go for months without touching another human being. Don't you need the serotonin?
Well, I think we all derive, whether it's biological or mental or just a sense of calmness, of being connected to others. What we're seeing a lot of times is people are now adopting animals. You're seeing a lot of this going on. So people are wanting a connectedness. So people that are alone, I encourage people to reach out to your friends, be it on Zoom or Skype or whatever you use, or call.
And how would you recommend folks doing that who maybe don't have internet?
I think it's getting together without technology. If you don't have access to Zoom or internet, I think it's getting together and you can physically distance — maybe in a park. You know, you could all take a little camping or chairs or whatever, have your masks on and just kind of have a small get-together following whatever guidelines are in your community. It's just that sense of coming together and seeing other people.