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Social isolation: The negative consequences

Rod Swoboda Farmstead druing winter months
RURAL AREAS: Keeping in touch with family, friends and neighbors to share information and offer help is critical in these unusual times.
Consider the implications COVID-19 is having on mental health, and what you can do to help.

We are increasingly concerned about the mounting negative impacts of social distancing on the mental health and well-being of farmers and rural residents.

If we misbehaved as youngsters, many of us were told by our parents, “Go to your room,” which was a commonly used form of punishment at that time.  As teenagers, many of us can recall the sense of dread when our parents announced, “You’re grounded,” and took away the car keys or banned us from using the telephone. Taking away privileges or other forms of social isolation was an effective punishment for children and youth.

For many people today, social isolation or social distancing as a preventive measure to contain the spread of COVID-19 feels like punishment. The reactions to recommendations to practice social distancing is frequently met with the same emotional responses as being grounded or sent to your room. Not being able to socialize with extended family or friends, or to freely go out for entertainment or to attend worship service is often viewed as a form of punishment. The disruptions to social gatherings, including family vacations, class reunions, weddings, funerals and service club meetings, carry important negative mental health implications.

Natural to rebel

It’s not surprising to see the resistance among all age groups to social distancing. There are many bedroom doors marred by temper tantrums from kids who were “sent to their room.” Many teenagers have stories of escapes, sneaking out of their parents’ home to see their friends when they were grounded. Rebellion against what is viewed as unfair or unnecessary restrictions abound in the news as we watch bars, parties and crowded beaches filled with defiant patrons. In recent weeks, we’ve read of media accounts of motorcycle rallies, beach parties and other social activities held in open defiance to recommendations to practice social distancing.

Social isolation for many is viewed as too harsh or cruel. Solitary confinement is still used as an effective punishment in many prisons. Because of the disruptions and consequences of social distancing, it’s not surprising that many teenagers and adults defy recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control.

On college campuses, often students who test positive for COVID-19 are isolated and quarantined. Again, it seems that medical recommendations may be viewed as a form of punishment. No one wants to be quarantined from their friends. Among college-age students, their college experience includes more than book learning, and unfortunately social distancing can be viewed as a severe form of punishment, especially in those cases where one is asymptomatic.

Loneliness and depression

In some cases, open defiance of CDC recommendations is hard to understand, but when state and national leaders flaunt science-based recommendations, it implicitly gives permission to others to violate the recommendations. Issues of justice and inequality are legitimately raised when leaders do not follow social distancing and face-covering recommendations.

We believe a powerful yet generally unrecognized factor explaining why some chose to ignore social distancing is because they are lonely and crave social engagement. It is generally recognized that there is a strong connection between loneliness and depression, albeit there is less clarity about cause and effect. Does loneliness cause depression or does depression lead to loneliness? What is important about social isolation is that it contributes to loneliness, and hence depression.

Gerontologists and retirement home administrators have long known the negative health effects of loneliness among the elderly. Many seniors complain about their loneliness, and there is a wealth of research that shows that keeping people engaged in social activities helps delay both physical and mental health declines. Those who are sheltering in place, perhaps the most extreme form of social distancing because of preexisting conditions are the most vulnerable to loneliness.

Why be concerned?  

We should be concerned about the mental health consequence of social isolation especially as the pandemic drags on. As the pandemic appears to be surging and more draconian measures are employed across the world, we should anticipate additional mental health challenges. Many people ache to see their grandchildren, being able to rejoin their social activities, go back to church and resume normal living.

There are many stories of the sacrifices that many have made to practice social distancing, but if one listens carefully, one often gets the sense of fatigue and pent-up restlessness. As the pandemic drags on, we should be prepared for elevated stress and psycho-social implications of being isolated.

The pernicious consequence of COVID-19 is that it denies the nature of social beings.  Whether imposed by regulations or voluntarily self-imposed, social distancing runs counter to human nature. Much of what makes America the envy of the world is that our entire society is based upon social (face-to-face) interaction and personal relationships, something COVID-19 is taking from us.

Lasley is professor of sociology and Rasmussen is director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The views expressed are solely personal opinions and should not be interpreted as representing ISU.

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