/ 9 April 2020

Social isolation can mess with the mind

Lockdown 0210 Dv
Our mandatory separation from others could have dire mental and physical consequences, so best to keep some feelings in check… and check on others. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


All South African citizens are by now aware of the global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus. President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the entire country in a state of lockdown to limit the spread of the virus in the country. Schools, tertiary institutions, churches and numerous businesses (which do not provide essential services) had to close. The lockdown aims to ensure that citizens stay at home, keep themselves away from others and help to “flatten the curve”. The consequences and reality, however, is physical and social isolation which, of course, also means that many people are currently alone and lonely.

Working from home

Those who can work from home are allowed to do so. There are several benefits to this; for example, you can manage your own time, work in comfortable clothes and you can work with fewer interruptions. Although the lockdown will only last for a supposed 21 days, there are also psychological disadvantages associated with social isolation — which is the absence of interaction and contact with colleagues, loved ones, strangers and even society as a whole. Many people could soon become discouraged and unmotivated to do their work because of the time away from the workplace. During these secluded periods, individuals may even become complacent, and consequently do not have goals or routines.

Consequences of social isolation

Although it is also natural to occasionally seek time alone, the effect of forced social isolation can have negative consequences for the emotional well-being of individuals. Humans, by nature, are social beings who strive towards interaction with others; it is often essential to survival. Studies have shown that long-term separation has had dire consequences for some people’s physical and mental health, such as increased risk of premature death and higher tendencies towards depression.  

Separation can lead to feelings of despair, anxiety and sleep difficulties. Furthermore,  many individuals tend to exhibit more forms of unhealthy behaviour, such as smoking and drinking more alcohol than usual. Feelings of loneliness tend to worsen if individuals are confined with people with whom they do not have a close relationship. This can turn into a vicious downward spiral, leading to more loneliness and depression if not dealt with. 

Social isolation will, however, affect people differently. More extroverted people will long for social engagement with others and might feel as if they want to climb the walls. They will want to go shopping or meet up with friends. More introverted individuals may enjoy this alone time and spend it taking long baths and reading books. Most will start to experience negative feelings at some point, however. Families could, for example, not be used to these extended periods together and this may lead to increased conflict between members. Bear in mind those parents who have small children who need to constantly be kept busy and entertained. 

More affluent Individuals with big homes can spend time in their gardens and exercise on their lawns, but what about those living in overcrowded flats or informal settlements? Such individuals may be more inclined to experience negative symptoms and turn to harmful substances for comfort. 

People might still be fine and feel good now, but how will they cope if the lockdown is extended?  

Keeping in touch on social media

People can thankfully still attempt to keep in touch using various forms of social media. Recent studies have shown that loneliness decreases when interacting in this way. Accordingly, people need to make more contact with others and reach out to those whom they have not heard from in a while. Beware, however, of negative content or fake news. Social interaction via the internet might not fulfil everyone’s needs, but it still allows us to experience a sense of congregation and community.

Stay positive

The reality is, however, that many people also do not have access to the internet and social media, and therefore cannot communicate with others. It then becomes essential that they continue with certain routines in their lives. People should still set goals (even smaller goals) for themselves and try to achieve them. Everyone should try to change perspective and remain positive. People need to attempt any form of exercise and keep their minds occupied with books or brain games. Families can play board games and create their own fun activities. Fortunately most schools have provided parents with study material to keep children busy and stimulated. Alternatively, parents should create some form of structure and routine for their children during the lockdown. Children should also be allowed to contact their friends via social media if they become lonely. And parents should allow their children to share their worries and concerns openly. Individuals need to be prepared, because when this mandatory period of isolation ends, everyone will have to resume their usual activities.

Get help

If not addressed, experiences of overwhelming loneliness, desolation or loss of purpose may continue long after the lockdown has ended. Individuals who experience depression or feel solitary after the lockdown should reach out to others, try to eat healthy foods, do fun things and exercise more. They should also consider contacting mental healthcare professionals for assistance. They can also visit the South African Depression and Anxiety Group‘s website or Facebook page for help.

Social distancing is vital at this stage, but as South African citizens, we must remember that we are not going through this alone. We are separated from others, but together we are all fighting the same battle against Covid-19.

Dr Jacques Jordaan is a lecturer and undergraduate co-ordinator in the humanities faculty of the University of the Free State and director of its psychology programme