Has anyone else been consumed by a deep, soul-crushing loneliness recently? If not, good for you, man. If you have, you are not alone in your aloneness.
Isolation has defined 2020. Social distancing, working from home (or not having work at all), travel restrictions, and school shutdowns were rightfully put in place to protect public health, but they’ve worsened an already growing health epidemic — the epidemic of loneliness. This problem may not have visible symptoms, but it is dangerous.
Even before the pandemic, America faced a loneliness epidemic of unprecedented proportions. A 2019 study on loneliness from Cigna global health services found 47 percent of Americans experienced no meaningful daily interaction, and 61 percent of Americans were lonely, a 13 percent increase since 2018.
Humans are a social species. Study after study shows we are happiest when we have social connections. Social isolation can be dangerous to our cognitive health, and isolation and loneliness are linked with a variety of mental health problems. For example, research recently found children and adolescents are more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety during and after social isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lonely people are also more likely to report their physical health as poor, and loneliness has been linked to an overall 32 percent increase in the likelihood of mortality.
It’s important to remember that social media is not a substitute for real relationships. In fact, studies show that people who use more social media perceive themselves as being more alone.
Dating app use may also increase loneliness. The quick-fix social tools of our generation will not solve the loneliness epidemic.
Whenever you ask people for advice on how to feel less lonely, the typical answer tends to be “Just go out and meet people!” In the era of COVID-19, that’s dangerous advice. So here are a few things you can do for your mental health while staying isolated:
- Do something creative. While the drive to connect with others is an innate human impulse, so is the drive to create. Being creative has a positive effect on mental health.
- Try going off of social media and only staying connected to close friends. Social media may make you feel more connected with the outside world, but it could just be feeding your loneliness.
- Reach out to a therapist or counselor if your mental health is being seriously affected by isolation. CAPS at UCSC provides free temporary services to UCSC students. You can also see if your insurance covers mental health services; the law requires Medicaid and most large, private health insurance plans to provide mental health coverage. If you don’t have coverage, you may be able to find a Federally Qualified Health Center near you. These centers provide primary care services, often including mental health care, on a pay-what-you-can basis.
- Remind yourself that it’s OK to be lonely. Sometimes we tell ourselves that being lonely means we are unworthy of love, or that we are somehow socially deficient. Neither of those are true. We all have inherent worth, and that is true even when we are alone.
Finally, just because you’re lonely doesn’t mean you should have unsafe meet-ups or neglect COVID-19 precautions. The better we stop the spread of the coronavirus, the sooner we can safely return to the social world.