With the call for “stay-at-home” orders, adoption of six-foot social distancing guidelines and closure of nonessential businesses, Americans are seeing opportunities for social contact diminish as government officials intensify efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
But the loss of physical connection to the world outside might come at the cost of mental health, particularly for those already living with conditions whose treatment or recovery relies upon social support.
“There are two major components to all mental health, and that is the sense of having control over your life and the sense that you have a network of positive relationships,” said Bridget Mouchon-Humphrey, coordinator of Southwest Wisconsin Behavioral Health Partnership. “And here we are in a situation where we don’t feel like we have hardly any control over our lives and we are told we have to isolate.”
Chronic loneliness activates the body’s stress response and studies have shown it can increase the risks of alcoholism, dementia, depression and high blood pressure. In a 2015 review of medical literature, scientists found that social isolation increased mortality by 29%.
“Social interaction and touch are very important,” said Sue Whitty, a family psych-mental health nurse practitioner and president of Mental Health America Dubuque. “We have studies that show that social relationships are just as important as other therapeutic interventions. We need socialization.”
Mental health providers, accustomed to meeting with clients in person, are adapting to the new circumstances by transitioning to telehealth services.
“They are working as best as they can to work with people even if their insurance doesn’t cover that,” Mouchon-Humphrey said.
Some addiction support groups, where social connection constitutes a vital component of recovery, continue to meet in Dubuque, where gatherings of 10 or fewer people are still permitted. Chapters across the country also are holding online meetings.
Counselors at Turning Point Treatment Center now hold sessions with clients over the telephone, said Coordinator Courtney Runde.
“When things are constantly changing, this overall hopeless feeling can cause people to just feel stuck with no end in sight,” she said. “It can be a huge trigger for people that used alone or drank alone.”
In the absence of get-togethers, people have looked to technology for connection, including social media and video chat services like FaceTime, Skype and Zoom.
“We need to … find different kinds of ways to socially interact,” Whitty said. “I’m, personally, calling the people who are very important to me.”
People are also finding social opportunities in outdoor recreation, one of the few avenues left for people in shelter-in-place states, such as Illinois and Wisconsin.
Mouchon-Humphrey encourages people to check in on vulnerable community members, including those facing job loss or those who struggle with their brain health.
“It’s going to be on other members of our community to reach out to people who we are concerned about,” she said. “Ask what they did today (and) what their plans are. Use humor.”
Youths might struggle to cope with the disruption caused by social distancing and sheltering at home, said psychologist Christine McGrath-Wetjen, who treats children and adolescents at Medical Associates Clinic in Dubuque.
“When you think about the typical adolescent mind frame of ‘this can’t happen to me,’ it’s really difficult for them to understand why social distancing is so important,” she said. “I think parents need to really take the time to discuss this with their children and at the same time provide high levels of understanding.”
McGrath-Wetjen recommends parents assess their children’s’ knowledge of the pandemic, validate their feelings and use their children’s questions as a guide for how much information to provide.
But parents also might wish to limit their children’s screen time, which poses a dilemma under the current circumstances.
“We suggest keep(ing) to a regular schedule,” McGrath-Wetjen said. “We want children to keep up with their school work and extracurricular activities as much as they can.”
Too much exposure to media and television also can increase family anxiety. And parents, who might be working from home and caring for their children simultaneously, face additional pressure, she said.
“We need to have our own routine for self-care, as well,” McGrath-Wetjen said.