Social isolation risks and the importance of keeping in touch

Friends cooking

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, global loneliness levels had reached an all-time high.

According to the Australian Psychological Society’s 2018 Loneliness Report, one in four Australians are lonely and more than half of the population feel they occasionally lack companionship.

Loneliness – a feeling of social isolation – occurs when our interpersonal relationships fail to meet our expectations and needs. As social animals, we have a natural desire to be part of a group and make meaningful connections. When that need goes unmet however, we become distressed and vulnerable to several risk factors. These include:

  • Lowered physical health including poor sleep, headaches and stomach issues
  • Increased levels of anxiety and depression (particularly social interaction anxiety)
  • Fewer positive emotions
  • Lowered energy and enthusiasm
  • Emotion suppression
  • Poorer overall quality of life

Preliminary studies conducted since the Coronavirus outbreak have confirmed an unsurprising increase in anxiety and depression, with the 18-25 year old age bracket being most at risk. This is attributed to the fact that a large portion of mental health disorders appear by the age of 25, impacting an already stress-laden generation compounded by precarious climate, financial and vocational landscapes. Paradoxically, it seems that while young adults are considered to be the most socially connected group, they are also the most isolated.

Unfortunately, forced separation brought on by the pandemic has caused a breakdown of integral connections and friendship groups. It is important to continue to nurture those relationships whilst being open to forging new connections in order to keep the present and future bright.

Tips on staying connected

  1. First, it’s never too late to reach out. If you feel as though too much time has passed since you were last in contact with someone but really want to connect, go for it. You will likely find that they were thinking of you too and it was just a matter of who was brave enough to go first. Be the brave one.
  2. Make use of social media – selectively. Be picky about which platforms you prefer and how you choose to engage. Research has shown loneliness is influenced by relationship quality rather than quantity, suggesting a generalised blanket post to all of your followers and friends may not be very effective. Opt for a private, personalised DM or set up a group page with your closest friends or family.
  3. Engage in peer-to-peer conversations. You may find yourself back at home with your parents and feel you may have lost some of your autonomy. This can be difficult for emerging adults who may be seeking conversation that helps them sort through and process information without necessarily seeking reassurance or advice. The worst case scenario is being “spoken to” like a child, which you are not, whereas level, open, thoughtful conversation can strengthen your bond.
  4. Be creative. This is a time to find new fun ways to connect. If your closest friend had to relocate, organise a weekly online movie night or hold a study n’ snacks session over Zoom. Once upon a time people wrote letters (by hand!) and sent them in the mail. 
  5. Seek local connections. Check out what groups and activities are operating in your backyard. If nothing interests you, see what’s going on virtually or consider setting up your own club that caters to a niche interest.

Finally, if there is someone in your sphere who know is struggling or is likely to struggle in isolation – CHECK IN. A quick text or phone call is all it takes to make sure they are ok, and if you find yourself in need of additional support, there are a number of services available, including those offered by CSU.