The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life over the last several months, but nothing has been as affected as our social interactions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described humans as social animals, and the effects of social distancing and isolation are taking their toll on many people.
A National Mental Health Crisis
According to a recently released report from the American Psychological Association (APA), the pandemic’s effects have significantly impacted the population’s mental health. In a poll conducted on the APA’s behalf, 19% of adults reported that their mental health was worse than a year earlier.
Mental Health Services
This situation has been exacerbated by people not being able to access the services they need. A survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the pandemic has “disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide.” This comes when the effects of isolation due to COVID-19 are increasing the demand for mental health services.
Increased Anxiety and Depression
The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the Census Bureau conducted an online survey into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on anxiety and depression. The 2020 Pulse Survey included questions examining the frequency of Anxiety and Depressive disorders in the United States. The data was then compared to figures collected from the 2019 National Health Interview Survey. It showed a rise from 11% of people displaying symptoms of both disorders in the first two quarters of 2019 to approximately 33.9% for a similar period in 2020.
The Effects of Prolonged Isolation and Social Distancing
One of the main fears of prolonged isolation and social distancing is that people lose their connections to other people. Fear of infection, face-covering, and limited social gathering may be causing people to withdraw from social interaction. The worry is that those who have voluntarily removed themselves from social interaction may find it difficult to restart once the pandemic ends. This concern has led some to make a comparison with hikikomori, a form of severe social withdrawal observed in Japan in the late 20th century where people voluntarily isolate themselves from social situations to the point of remaining housebound for more than 6 months.
Daily social interactions with others are necessary for people to maintain the routines and bonds that contribute to good mental health. Additional fears are that the effects of isolation and social distancing will create mental health issues that will outlast the pandemic. One central area of concern for mental health professionals is the potential increase in conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The need to maintain high levels of hygiene may trigger these issues or worsen existing cases.
The research into what effect COVID-19 is having on our mental health is still ongoing. While further data is currently being added and analyzed, the long-term impact of social distancing and isolation may only be known in the future.
One year later, the initial consensus of a pandemic symbolising a universal struggle for humanity now rapidly paves the way for emerging data which suggests that different populations, communities, and ethnicities are affected in markedly differing ways. Whilst the magnitude is now recognised, this remains in stark contrast to the implications on an individual level. It is hoped this will highlight the need to ensure that responsive and quality mental health services are available to all at a time of increasingly unprecedented demand.
- American Psychological Association: Stress in America 2020 Survey Signals a Growing National Mental Health Crisis
- WHO: COVID-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries
- CDC: Early Release of Selected Mental Health Estimates
- Journal of community psychology: The dangers of social distancing: How COVID-19 can reshape our social experience
- Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences: Forced social isolation due to COVID-19 and consequent mental health problems: Lessons from hikikomori
- Asian journal of psychiatry: Dealing with Corona virus anxiety and OCD