Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global surge in depression and anxiety. 40% of American adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic years, up from 10% in 2019.

It’s very important to understand how the pandemic and lockdowns have had an impact on mental health, and how we can provide support for those struggling. From emotional exhaustion to heightened stress and anxiety, almost everyone has been impacted in some way. Fear of the virus, loss of loved ones, economic uncertainty, feeling overwhelmed—all of these were major factors in the wave of mental health struggles.

Another major contribution was the social isolation caused by lockdowns.

Isolation of Remote Work

For a short time at the beginning of the lockdown in early 2020, the new restrictions felt exciting and new for some. Social distancing was a chance to reconnect with family and loved ones at home or a much-needed break from the daily grind.

Even by March 2020, that was changing. A small survey from that month noted increases in substance and alcohol use in the U.S., while 25% of survey respondents said they felt depressed or hopeless, 43% felt anxious, and 38% felt tired and low energy.

These were early signs of how working from home would start to affect employed adults. The same survey found that 1 in 4 were struggling to concentrate, and 1 in 3 found it tough to relax and unwind. When home becomes the office, helpful boundary lines disappear. It’s hard to separate work from relaxation, or to get in “work mode.” Once work is over, it’s even harder to clock out and relax. There’s no leaving work in a lockdown when the office is home.

A survey from July 2020 looked at symptoms of mental illness in adults and saw some alarming surges. Of the adults surveyed, due to anxiety or stress related to the pandemic:

  • 36% reported difficulty sleeping
  • 32% reported difficulty eating
  • 12% reported worsening chronic health conditions
  • 12% reported increased alcohol or substance use

For many employees, the community and camaraderie they find at work with their colleagues are a major part of their social lives. It could have been a reason why they chose their job in the first place. With this social outlet suddenly cut short, employees felt lonely, isolated, and depressed. The remote workplace has presented challenges as employers and managers try to find ways for their teams to stay connected from afar.

Isolation of Remote Learning

As difficult as the pandemic was for adults, studies suggest that children lost even more—and continue to suffer disproportionately. Although the risk of COVID-19 infection is much lower for young people, the trauma and stress of the lockdown measures and fear of infection caused serious harm.

Between March 2020 and February 2021, emergency rooms saw a concerning increase in mental health-related visits from young patients:

  • 31% increase in mental health emergency room visits in 12-17 year-olds
  • 24% increase in mental health emergency room visits in 5-11 year-olds

Additionally, there was a 66% increase in suicidal emergencies for students aged 10 to 17, according to the Children’s Hospital of Oakland. In fact, 20% of all teen hospitalizations in the U.S. in 2021 were caused not by COVID-19, but by mental emergencies.

Most students attended school remotely for at least part of the pandemic. From the loss of senior proms and graduation ceremonies to missing athletic seasons, music lessons, school trips, college trips, study abroad opportunities, and so much more, attending school looked different for young people than it ever has before.

Studentes Face Unique Mental Health Challenges

The isolation and loneliness of missing social groups and friends led to serious mental health repercussions for many young people. One study found that school and activity closures for long periods of time exposed young people to “debilitating effects on educational, psychological, and developmental attainment as they experience loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty.” Rates of solitary substance use, as opposed to social use, increased dangerously among young people during the pandemic.

Other mental health symptoms experienced by young people during the pandemic included:

  • Suicidal ideation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of confidence
  • Social withdrawal

Young people suffered uniquely from the isolation brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns because without the experience and agency that comes with age, it’s difficult to put a short-term quarantine into perspective. Young people can feel hopeless and frustrated because a difficult experience feels eternal and permanent; they haven’t learned the lesson years bring, that troubles are transient and “this too shall pass.” But more than that, youth and childhood are foundational and formative years full of the memories and experiences that shape us. Many young people growing up in the pandemic truly have suffered loss. It’s on parents, educators, and anyone who works with children to help them navigate this.

Supporting Students in the Lockdown

“It is next to impossible to expect teaching and learning to occur in a crisis without attending to our emotions.”

-Christina Cipriano, the Director of Research at Yale Center for Emotional Learning

Despite all the difficulties of the pandemic, 69% of college students still feel hopeful about the future. However, the same survey found that 55% of students do not know where to go for mental health help. It’s important that we empower and equip young people with mental health resources.

Mental health app Mindboost is a helpful tool deisgned to provide additional support for students. With daily check-ins customized to their needs and exercises created for positive mental health habit-building, Mindboost is designed to help foster resilience and mental strength in young people. For many school districts, state or federal educational funding could be available to provide your students with mental health resources including Mindboost.

Finding the Positive & Building Resilience

While the negative effects of the COVID-19 years will no doubt be studied and discussed for a long time, it’s worth noting any positive outcomes possible. In a survey published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 88.6% of respondents said they had found personal positives in the pandemic.

These unexpected upsides include:

  • 48% found a renewed appreciation for family
  • 22% appreciated the opportunity to slow down and reassess personal values and priorities
  • 11% said the pandemic brought new opportunities

This is not to say that there haven’t been very real struggles and hardships. By looking for growth, however, individuals develop a resilient and strong mindset to help get through challenging circumstances.

This is part of our approach to mental health coaching at Mindboost. We help users focus on the positive and build resilience through science-backed exercises and checkins. With customized chat sessions and daily reminders and exercises, Mindboost helps build resilience and develop healthy mental habits.

Post-Traumatic Growth

A study in Spain looked at those who experienced “post-traumatic growth” after the pandemic. The study delved into what these people had in common—which psychological traits they shared that allowed them to thrive through incredibly challenging circumstances.

Researchers found a few important commonalities. Those who grew because of the trauma of the pandemic were also more likely to believe the world is a fundamentally good place. They were more open to the future, more able to tolerate uncertainty, and more likely to emphasize and identify with humanity at large rather than their familiar group only.

Social isolation may be emotionally and psychologically challenging, but there are lessons to be learned from this study, such as focusing on the positive, remaining open to change, choosing to face the future with hope, and seeking to connect with others through empathy and openness.

Finding Answers & Hope

Learn more about practical steps recommended for mitigating the mental health struggles and loneliness brought on by social isolation in our previous blog post on this topic. As the world returns to normal, many find it challenging to rejoin the world. There is no “one size fits all” approach for overcoming the mental health struggles caused by social isolation, but it’s important to prioritize finding the strategies and tools that work for each individual. Whether you are providing support for employees or students, having access to resources is vital.

Our mental health coaching app is designed to build resilience through positive habit-building. Contact our team at Mindboost to schedule a demo today.