A person who has been forced to remain at home during the COVID-19 pandemic may wonder, “What mental health conditions can develop during social isolation?” It is important to note that there are differences between loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness is self-imposed and can be controlled through voluntary actions, while social isolation is involuntary and cannot be controlled by the person experiencing it.
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Depression is one of the earliest mental health conditions that can develop when a person is socially isolated. Being around other people provides a person with a sense of belonging. Interactions with others also provide a person with a sense of being needed, useful and loved. When a person is forced to stay away from others, that external validation decreases. Without that validation from others, a person could start feeling useless, hopeless or unneeded, which leads to depression. The longer social isolation lasts, the worse the depression can get.
People who interact with others on a regular basis enjoy better cognitive functions. Engaging in conversation, participating in events and going out in nature engages all of the senses. A person who is forced to stay in their home for an extended period of time may experience cognitive decline that is similar to decline related to dementia or early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A person may lose track of time, become more forgetful or have difficulty interpreting the information they read, observe or hear. They may have trouble engaging in written or oral communications through emails, texts or following televised news reports.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is another mental health condition that can develop or worsen during social isolation. A person who is feeling anxious about things they cannot control may end up over-consuming media while they are socially isolated. They may also interact with sources of information that tend toward fear-mongering, rumors, and hoaxes, which can make feelings of anxiety worse. A person who is alone while anxious may have a difficult time getting out of their rumination or cycle of negative thinking.
When a person is socially isolated, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to attempt to relieve stress. Substance abuse is a common coping mechanism, especially when they cannot interact with the people who would otherwise stop them from using addictive substances. A person who is forced to stay home may also experience sudden withdrawal from their substance of abuse if they are no longer able to get it. This may result in the person turning to a new substance with the potential for increased harm to their physical or mental health. It also leads to an increased risk of suicide.
A person who is experiencing mental health problems as a result of social isolation could reach out to their primary care physician, therapist, social worker or psychologist. Although many healthcare providers may not be accepting in-person appointments, telehealth visits are increasingly available and paid for by both public and private health insurance plans. There are also call lines available for people who are in a crisis situation. Knowing the answer to, “What mental health conditions can develop during social isolation?” could help a person recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health condition.