Photo illustration by Carlos Holguin

The mental toll of COVID-19 isolation

Increased periods of isolation can lead to depression, and how to combat it
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Increased periods of isolation can lead to depression, and how to combat it

March signaled the beginning of quarantine in the United States, with various states asking residents to refrain from unnecessary social contact with shelter-in-place orders.

For those staying with family and friends, the burden of staying at home for the last nine months was reduced by the ability to talk to and interact with others.

According to Paula Nedelcoff, a psychotherapist and community outreach coordinator for Humboldt State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services department, the task is significantly more taxing. Changes in living organization, such as online instruction, brings unwanted physical and mental changes.

“Long term social isolation for most people is very difficult,” Nedelcoff said in an email interview.

COVID-19 restricts face-to-face interaction, prohibiting the ability for people to physically and socially interact with each other. This prolonged isolation intensifies with time.

“Humans are social animals and we count on interactions with others. When we do not have someone to bounce off ideas and feelings with we can move within and isolate even more,” Nedelcoff said. “While during this virus we have a virtual world, we humans need contact with each other, we need and thrive with touch.”

A 2016 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases suggested that isolation precautions may lead to anxiety. A group of doctors and professors looked at the ways social isolation affected patients who were recovering from various bacterial infections. These infections (like scabies, measles or tuberculosis) often required patients to reside in single rooms to minimize the exposure to other patients.

A separate 2016 twin study the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology suggested that social isolation could trigger an increase in mental stress. The data found that depression was significantly correlated with both social isolation and loneliness.

For those living alone, combined with a lack of available social interactions, the association with depression is even greater.

A 2011 research article in the International of Geriatric Psychiatry found that social connections were factors in determining depression.

“Living alone and living with at least one child (no spouse), and weak social networks were associated with higher depressive symptom scores in both genders,” the study stated. “Men living alone with weak social networks outside the household had higher depressive symptom scores than those with strong networks.”

In order to combat these feeling, Nedelcoff recommended finding ways to reach out to others within your social circle, in addition to seeking professional help.

“I encourage all folks to stay engaged with life via on line groups and virtual happenings,” Nedelcoff said. “This can be a great time to try therapy or a therapy group. Going to counseling does not mean there is something wrong with you. Think of it like having a copilot while looking more deeply into your life and the meaning of it.”

She suggested finding ways to properly vent emotions and feelings so that individuals may not feel like they are cooped up physically and mentally.

“Learn and become aware of what works for you,” Nedelcoff said. “What might work for me may not work for my friend. Some people meditate, some people use music to calm them or ease their soul, while others may journal or get into a book. Often times we are not sure or don’t know what works for us.”

Most of all, Nedelcoff encouraged students to continue trying to find ways of expression in any positive way.

“COVID-19 and sheltering in place has taught us how little control we have over so many things,” Nedelcoff said. “This can be scary but we do have control of how we respond.”

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