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Social isolation and loneliness levels reached an all-time high even before the outbreak of the current global pandemic. In fact, one in ten Australians (or 1.8 million) over the age of 15 reported as lacking social support in a study conducted in 2016. At the time of the study, one in four reported feeling socially isolated at the time of reporting, and a staggering one in two reported feeling socially isolated for at least one day each week. These numbers have been rising steadily since the study was released, and in 2020 alone, social isolation has become one of the major health concerns facing Australians.

These figures are alarming in and of themselves, but even more so when we consider the adverse effects on mental health that isolation can have.

What is social isolation and how does it affect mental health?

Social isolation can occur for a range of reasons, but essentially means being cut off from friends, family and other social connections regularly or for extended periods of time. Isolation can be healthy in some instances, such as when it’s important to give yourself some space for ‘you time’, or when you’re deeply involved in activities which don’t include your social network – such as studying or working, for example. However, social isolation has been linked by a great deal of research to similar health outcomes akin to heavy smoking or having an alcohol abuse problem. Just as astonishingly, research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD has found that social isolation can be TWICE as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

It comes as little surprise then, that in the wake of a global pandemic and a number of strict social distancing measures have been experienced around the world, social isolation has become an even greater problem. In Australia alone, calls to Lifeline and other mental health hotlines have skyrocketed, and rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide have increased. Now, more than ever, it is important for all of us to understand the true effects of social isolation and uncover how to combat it – not only for our own sake, but for those of our loved ones, many of whom suffer in silence.

Who is most likely to be at risk?

Loneliness and isolation are things we all deal with from time to time. From moving cities, to changing jobs, getting a divorce, leaving home for the first time, or simply being preoccupied with other aspects of life – it’s an unavoidable fact of life for all of us. However, social isolation can be problematic if it is ongoing, and some people can be more susceptible than others.

In 2020, there are several major contributing factors to the risk of social isolation. First of all, as we have become ever more reliant on our devices, including phones, tablets and computers, we are interacting online more than ever before. This can be rewarding and help to maintain social connections, however, the darker side of online interactions can include bullying, exclusivity, and a sense of having more acquaintances – but fewer meaningful relationships. Furthermore, for those with less access to digital platforms, social isolation is much more likely. This can disproportionately affect the elderly and those in remote communities, for example.

Another major factor contributing to social isolation in 2020 is the phenomenon of social distancing. It goes without saying that being mandated to restrict our interactions with people results in more isolation and loneliness, and this can affect everyone throughout the community. Those more at risk from adverse mental and physical health effects from isolation during these times include those with existing health conditions, including both physical and mental concerns.

Effects of isolation and loneliness on mental health

Social isolation can affect our physical, mental and cognitive health, according to recent research. These effects can include depression, impaired sleep, cognitive decline, and even poor cardiovascular health and impaired immunity. Worryingly, these concerns can affect people of all ages. According to the article, The Risks of Social Isolation, by Amy Novotney for the American Psychology Association, social isolation is as serious a health issue as smoking, obesity, lack of access to care, and physical inactivity. In fact, research has found that social isolation can double the risks of premature death!

“Loneliness, it seems, can lead to long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signaling, which negatively affects immune system functioning. Simply put, people who feel lonely have less immunity and more inflammation than people who don’t.” – The Risks of Social Isolation, American Psychology Association

Combatting social isolation

As the reasons for social isolation are many and varied, there is no single solution for combatting it. However, during such unprecedented times as these, there are several key things that each of us can do to combat our own social isolation, and also protect those we love. These include:

  • Learning that ‘aloneness’ is not the same as isolation. This means becoming comfortable with being by ourselves, and finding activities which enrich our lives when we are by ourselves. This might be learning a new skill, studying something you’re passionate about, taking time to relax and pamper yourself, spending time with pets, or doing fulfilling activities like gardening, watching your favourite TV shows, or reading a book.
  • Making time to catch up with loved ones online, if not in person. It can be tempting to retreat into ourselves when we’re feeling stressed, depressed or anxious. And there’s nothing wrong with having these feelings, especially with the way things are in the world right now! But it’s important to reach out to friends and family not only when we’re feeling vulnerable, but regularly, just for a catch up! Chatting with loved ones even when things are feeling good can be incredibly uplifting and can help to avoid feelings of social isolation in the future.
  • Checking in on more isolated family and friends. This might mean making a phone call to elderly parents, or occasionally visiting a neighbour who might have limited mobility and difficulty getting out and about. Not only can checking in on your social connections help to keep them from feeling socially isolated, but it can be good for you too!
  • Joining community groups that interest you. If your social isolation comes about due to a lack of social connections or a sudden distancing from your previous connections (you might have become a new mum but not have many other friends who are mothers, for example), finding new connections who share your interests can be an excellent way to increase your social interaction. You might like to find a mother’s group on Facebook, join a local personal training class, jump on meetup.com and attend some local events with like-minded people, or even take up a class at your local TAFE or adult learning centre.
  • Making an appointment to see a counsellor: It’s important to understand that feelings of social isolation are a serious risk to your health, and as such, deserve just as much attention as your physical health concerns. Now that you understand the very real implications that social isolation can have on your health, it’s time to get in touch and book a consultation with a counsellor who can not only help you to understand your experience, but help you to overcome social isolation and start feeling your true self again. Get it touch with us to make an appointment today.
Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen