• Devyn Molina

Social Distancing: How your mental health is at risk

We have be doing everything we can to protect ourselves from COVID-19 physically, it may start to take a toll on us mentally.

Image courtesy of Imperial College London.

With the world shrouded in uncertainty and panic over the novel coronavirus, people are required to stay inside their homes to prevent further infection and ultimately flatten the curve. While some countries may be easing up on their restrictions, many are still adamant on keeping everything under lockdown indefinitely. However, this global pandemic has not only done damage to people physically, but mentally as well.

It seems as if each week brings about a new fear and worry to instill into the public. Millions have lost their jobs, hanging in financial limbo, affecting their livelihood and potentially their future. According to Worldometer, the UK has just surpassed over 16,054 deaths with the toll continuing to rise each day following the US, Italy, France and Spain. Standing a minimum of two to three metres from others and losing the luxury of seeing friends and loved ones on a daily basis has also taken a toll on people’s psyche. Losing any sense of normalcy and routine has come with some effects on people’s mental health which could even still be in effect long after lockdown ends.

Who is most likely to be affected?

Research shows that this new norm can have lasting psychological effects on those having to self isolate and social distance. Doctors are worried that people with existing mental health problems can develop new effects or their current health can become exacerbated. Thus far, there have been a total of 24 studies conducted on the psychological effects on patients that have been forced to quarantine themselves during previous virus and disease outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS, and H1N1 flu. While quarantine has more restrictions and permits the patient from leaving their home whatsoever, it still is a form of social distancing and the effects are the same.

Through research done from the SARS epidemic in 2003, Psycom conducted, they found that the people that are most at risk are 16-24 year olds as their high school and university experiences have been hindered as well as graduation ceremonies, women, especially women in forced to self isolate with their abusers, people with current or a history of mental illness, families with only one child and healthcare workers at hospitals treating coronavirus patients. Social distancing has also had a huge affect on the elderly and/or any other people that are considered to be vulnerable such as people with asthma, diabetes kidney disease, neurological disorders and other underlying health conditions. These people are urged by the government and health professionals to stay inside as much as possible as they are more susceptible to contracting the virus.

Studies have shown that the elderly are considered one of the most affected groups of people psychologically. As with other vulnerable people, the elderly have to abide by the rules set in place and spend longer periods of time inside and forbidden to see their loved ones. In an article with Al Jazeera News, Dr. Amir Khan reported that since social distancing leads to lack of human contact, the elderly are at risk of mental and emotional distress, Alzheimer’s, onset cognitive problems and this could lead to early death.

Dr. Adam Kaplin from John Hopkins University of Medicine, worried about what could become of people’s mental health stated: “This kind of event has a way of unearthing past trauma and bringing it up to the surface.”

What are the potential effects?

Psychological effects on a person’s mental health can vary in the amount and severity but with the current state of the world, it is much more likely that people will experience some sort of effect on their mental state.

People are not meant to function properly without basic human interaction. When humans experience physical touch, there is a hormone called oxytocin that is released to form bonds, stimulate sexual arousal as well as trust. However, if humans experience a low amount of oxytocin, overtime they can develop depression, even higher levels of stress and varying forms of anxiety. Psychiatrist and disaster mental health expert, Joshua Morgstein, has conducted studies in the past and has concluded: “For some people, a lack of social connectedness feels as impactful as not eating.”

One of the more prominent effects that is often a gateway to others is loneliness. People living alone are often hit the hardest as they have completely lost all physical contact with others and in turn can feel as though they don’t have anyone to turn to in a time of crisis. While loneliness and social isolation and distancing are not the same, they are linked as social isolation or social distancing can lead to loneliness.

Loneliness can also lead to a weakened immune system, contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. The European Public Health Alliance claims: “Feelings of loneliness and social isolation are heightened by the current public health crisis, can leave health consequences for a number of socioeconomic groups.”

As the lockdown progresses, people are spending the majority of their time inside with only one form of physical activity a day. This lack of physical movement, even just walking in our previous daily routines can lead to poor sleeping patterns and nightmares. Due to the severity of the virus, how contagious it is, the rising death toll and the overall uncertainty, people are experiencing higher levels of stress and trauma especially if a loved one has contracted the virus. Studies have shown that high levels of stress can oftentimes disrupt sleep patterns, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. As said before the pandemic can be a form of trauma and according to Dr. Amir Khan, he has found that any sort of occurance in a person’s life that can cause anxiety will most likely have negative effects on their dreams.

Based on the current and limited research neurologists and doctors have uncovered, these psychological effects from social distancing can come all at once or slowly within the passing weeks of the lockdown. ScienceNews reported the results of a study done with 2,760 quarantined people, 34 percent which is 938 people, experience very high levels of psychological distress which eventually lead to varying forms of anxiety and depression. Other effects both short and long-term were insomnia, higher levels of stress, emotional exhaustion and in some severe cases, substance abuse.

First hand experience from a psychiatrist during the current pandemic

In an interview with Dr. Dan Tzaung, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, noted that there have been some changes in his patients since the lockdown has occurred. Due to the fact that Dr. Tzaung can no longer see patients in his office face-to-face, he has had to resort to contacting his patients via email and conducting appointments through video calls over Zoom.

When asked how him and his patients have been adjusting: “It’s been kind of difficult seeing my patients through video calls. I’ve only ever done it a couple of times in the past if a patient really needed to see me. I’ve been a psychiatrist for almost 10 years and don’t have as much experience in treating patients in a pandemic.” He went on to say: “I’ve been doing appointments this way since March and I’ve noticed that it has been particularly hard on the children and parents. I see some of them regularly [so] not having that time at my office with the exercises I do with them can be harder for them to get used to.”

Dr. Tzaung has definitely noticed some other changes in his patients and has even had to prescribe extra medications for problems such as anxiety attacks or has had to increase the dosage of current medications. He stated: “I would say loneliness has taken the biggest toll.”

He concluded: “Psychiatry is about getting to the root of a patient’s problems and finding the right solutions to help treat it, which is usually through medication. Certain circumstances, in this case social distancing or even quarantine, can make these [problems] much worse. I would think it would also depend on the country you live in. People don’t do well with the unknown. Here in the US, particularly California where I am, the lockdown has been really strict. I guess I just hope this thing ends soon.”

What can we do to ease these harmful effects?

Given that the lockdown doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon in most countries, social distancing measures are still going to have to be put in place. Doctors fear that the longer this continues the more harm it can do to not only the economy but to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Kids are unable to go school, large gatherings and festivals have been cancelled, millions are uncertain as to when they’ll return to work and the crisis continues.

It is strongly encouraged to go outside while still abiding by the social distancing guidelines. Exercise can have both a positive effect on the body as well as the mind. According to Healthdirect, exercise releases endorphins and serotonin that are known to improve mood, reduce the risk of cognitive disorders and obesity and has positive effects on self-esteem.

Experts are saying that one of the most effective ways to aid in the prevention of people's deteriorating mental health is to adhere to a schedule or routine as much as possible. This gives people something to look forward to and can give them a sense of normalcy. The British Red Cross also suggests that people make as much effort as possible to stay in contact with their friends and loved ones through technology in order to combat feelings of loneliness during social distancing or isolation. Elena Mikalsen, chief of the Psychology Section at the Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, Texas told VOA News: “The situation we’re in now, there’s a lot of social support [and] social support is one of the big predictors of good health and mental health outcomes.”