COVID-19 has been with us since March 2020. What, if anything, has living with the ‘lockdown’ experience taught us? To appreciate at an experiential level the importance of social connection and the effect of loneliness and social isolation on our physical lives as well as on our mental health.
Our Prime Minister acknowledged the increase in mental health problems when he said earlier this year on the ABC: “The stay at home has been important but it comes with an increase in anxiety and an increase in pressure on individuals, their mental stress and that also takes a toll.”
The increase in mental health complaints has been reported by frontline providers of telephone help services including Lifeline, Beyond Blue and mental health professionals who have noted a dramatic rise in calls from people experiencing anxiety, stress, depression and loneliness.
Even prior to the coronavirus, researchers found that our relationships and social connections provide us with protection against premature mortality, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline.
However, the Covid-related social distancing, disconnection and self-isolation have also led to an increase in unhealthy behaviours such as physical inactivity, substance abuse and obesity.
Will our general and mental health recover when we return to our pre-Covid lives? Will being able to access restaurants, cafés and travel assuage our loneliness and social isolation?
Some of us will cheer the return. But others may never return to pre-Covid lives either because they are unable, having lost businesses and jobs or because they do not wish to, finding it preferable to work from home and lead more self-contained existences.
For those of us, the elderly, the workers who have lost their jobs and social networks, who were already experiencing depression and anxiety pre-Covid, social isolation was, and will be, an enduring experience that will last well beyond the epidemic.
Or has this past period of disconnection made us realise that we experienced loneliness and social isolation even before Covid? That, we have always been aware of these difficulties but, that, now, we are able to recognise and talk about them?
So, is raising awareness of loneliness and social isolation a good thing and of benefit to us?
Speaking from a psychological perspective, all the current research indicates that it will benefit us as a community if we address these problems now.
What, if anything, has been successful in reducing loneliness and social isolation in the past?
The types of interventions that have been reported in the literature have included ‘befriending’ programs facilitated by volunteers; psychological counselling which addresses the social anxiety related to attending unfamiliar social situations and shared activity and social programs.
Reviews of such strategies suggest that the programs which facilitate engagement in meaningful, satisfying group activities and psychological counselling that overturns the maladaptive thinking associated with loneliness are the most effective.
This is where being a member of the Jewish community is of significant advantage.
Australian research has resulted in information that should be of particular interest to our community and may inject a fresh approach for social planners. Researchers found that it is not the amount of social contact a person has, but the sense of belonging or affiliation that a person feels and derives from their social interactions that is most relevant in addressing social isolation.
They have found that there is an important psychological difference between simply “showing up” to a random social event and regarding oneself as being a “valued member of a social group”. It is only when a person identifies with a group and when the group contributes to their sense of self, that participating in the social activities of the group is likely to alleviate social isolation, loneliness and depression.
In order to reduce the risk of pre-existing and Covid-related problems of social isolation becoming chronic, we, as a community, need to raise awareness about these social problems and be proactive about addressing the universal benefits of social connection.
We need to start a conversation about the stigma related to acknowledging being lonely. By doing so, we will normalise the problem.
The knowledge that the community is prepared to take action about the problem of disconnection would contribute to communal members’ feelings of resilience and assure them that the community has their back.
That would be no small achievement in a community where there is insecurity about growing antisemitism and a drift away from Jewish traditions and Jewish identity.
We as a community need to foster social connections and a feeling of belonging among various sections of the community, wherever there is a need.
We need to help members of our community realise that loneliness is a loss of connection between the self and others. It is a cost to our society and loneliness signals that cost. Our cohesion as a community will grow when we progress from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’.
Dr Eva Lowy is a clinical psychologist, in private practice, who has been involved in researching the academic literature on loneliness and social isolation with a particular interest in Sydney’s Jewish community.