Written by Veronica Walker
The phrase “Humans are social creatures” is frequently brought up during discussions of loneliness and its consequences. The implication is that human beings are meant to form relationships, bonds, and to interact with others. This tendency has been crucial to our development as a species, as it was the utilization of social bonds for cumulative gain that allowed the construction of groups, societies, and eventually civilizations.
Our society today is one built on interaction, in such a ubiquitous manner that it is only when that interaction is stripped away do we realize how essential it is to our mental landscape. Even the smallest forms of social movement play a part. From making a purchase at the grocery store, to waving hello to a coworker or fellow student, to signaling before changing lanes, these interactions with other people surround every action we make. Without larger occasions for social stimulation, such as work, get-togethers, or a late night fast food run with friends, and a significantly reduced number of the smaller occasions mentioned above, our personal worlds have shrunk to an alarming degree.
This, of course, has repercussions in the sphere of mental health.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that loneliness is a key variable in assuming the health of an individual (Adam). Loneliness is linked to several disturbances in the human body. Its effects stretch from depression and sleep disturbances to less effective cardiovascular and immune system functioning (Adam). In addition to these immediate effects, loneliness is found to “activate biological stress processes and contribute to poorer health practices” (Adam). Thus, not only does loneliness contribute directly to poor health, it also prompts inaction in terms of caring for the self, which easily leads to greater complications.
There are many variables that factor into the effects of loneliness, especially in times of social isolation, including limited access to support systems, decreased socialization with peers, and lack of stimulation in terms of setting and routine (being confined solely to one place and having little to no novelty introduced to that environment does not offer much in terms of variance of experience). A survey by YoungMinds found that 83% of participants with a history of mental illness said the pandemic had worsened their conditions, and 26% said that mental health support had become inaccessible. Many articles also source upheaval of routine as a factor in depression in anxiety, though that mainly applies to individuals on the autism spectrum (Lee).
These findings are especially important when related to childhood and adolescent health because it is during this period in life that individuals learn the importance of developing and maintaining social relationships (Adam). During times of social isolation, the individual’s opportunity to partake in social interaction is severely limited, and loneliness skyrockets. A recent review of scholarly literature led by Dr. Loades at the University of Bath found that children and adolescents experiencing social isolation (I.e. increased loneliness) are “. . . as much as three times more likely to develop depression in the future . . . with the impact of loneliness on mental health lasting up to nine years later” (Walter). Juveniles are more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation.
TLDR: Social interactions are the threads in the tapestries of our daily lives, and when they are removed we find ourselves gripped by loneliness. Loneliness is proven to have negative effects on mental health, such as increased depression and anxiety. This becomes concerning when compounded in children and adolescents, who use their developmental years to learn the crucial skills of founding and maintaining positive social relationships. Children and adolescents who experience enforced social isolation are three times more likely to develop depression in the future. It is vital that preventative measures and mental health support are made accessible to youth in order to avoid lasting problems that will cripple them in the future.
Adam, Emma K., et al. “Adverse Adolescent Relationship Histories and Young Adult Health: Cumulative Effects of Loneliness, Low Parental Support, Relationship Instability, Intimate Partner Violence, and Loss.” Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 49, no. 3, 2011, pp. 278–286., doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2010.12.012.
Lee, Joyce. “Mental Health Effects of School Closures during COVID-19.” The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, vol. 4, no. 6, 2020, p. 421., doi:10.1016/s2352-4642(20)30109-7.
Loades, Maria Elizabeth, et al. “Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020, doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009.
Walter, Kenneth. “COVID-19 Lockdown Having an Impact on Adolescent Mental Health.” HCPLive®, 2 June 2020, www.mdmag.com/medical-news/covid-19-lockdown-adolescent-mental-health.