The Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Practicing physical distancing means that teens aren’t able to interact in real life with friends and peers. Their normal routines of school, sports, and/or extracurricular activities have been disrupted, and—like everyone right now—they’re feeling abnormal levels of stress. Hence, this is an important time for parents to understand the effects of social isolation on mental health when it comes to their teenager.

Whether teens are suffering from the lack of peer companionship or feeling stifled at home with siblings, social isolation can be difficult. In addition, if adults are distressed or families are experiencing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19, teens’ well-being will also be undermined.

What Are The Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health?’

Social isolation is generally defined as the absence of social contact—being cut off from social support networks. Individuals may become socially isolated due to factors such as mental or physical illness, disabilities, financial issues, or domestic violence.

Typically, social isolation for teens is the result of social anxiety or other mental health challenges. In those cases, teenagers isolate themselves in order to avoid discomfort in social situations. Or symptoms of depression, such as lack of motivation and low self-esteem, may prevent them from reaching out to others. Therefore, withdrawing usually exacerbates symptoms of anxiety social phobias, and can lead to a rise in depression.

Social isolation as a result of physical distancing and shelter in place is a very different situation. However, it can also have a negative impact on adolescents. The effects of social isolation in this case may include loneliness, distress, an increase in symptoms of anxiety or depression, or a feeling of being oppressed due to lack of alone time.

Teen Loneliness and Isolation

For a socially isolated teen who is separated from friends and family members during this time, this period may bring on feelings of loneliness. For example, a teen may end up being alone during much of the day if they live with a single parent who is an essential worker or spends many hours working remotely.

In fact, loneliness is common in teens even without the extraordinary circumstances we’re experiencing now. Studies show that levels of loneliness are highest during the teenage and young adult years.

Research reveals that chronic loneliness has the following effects:

  • Increased stress (“fight or flight”) response and higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased incidence of alcohol and drug use as self-medication for the pain of loneliness
  • Higher levels of depression and anxiety
  • Decline in self-care, such as bathing, grooming, and nutrition
  • Negative outlook and sense of hopelessness
  • Greater risk of suicide.

Moreover, the symptoms of loneliness extend to physical health as well as mental health. In fact, research shows that chronic loneliness is worse for physical health than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure.

Family and Mental Health

For teens with siblings at home, the hardest part about social isolation might be the lack of private time and space, along with the limitations on their movements. Teens are working toward autonomy and independence during this stage of life. So, socially isolated teenagers may be frustrated and angry about not being able to make choices about what to do and where to go. This is natural and understandable. Therefore, it’s helpful for parents to acknowledge what teens are going through and allow them to feel their emotions rather than suppressing them. Remind teens that you’re not limiting their freedom as a punishment or because you don’t trust them. Rather, it is simply health safety measures.

Furthermore, because the teenage brain is still in development, teens aren’t always able to control their impulses and consider the consequences of their actions. So they may try to rebel against social-distancing regulations. However, it’s vital for parents to enforce these rules for the safety of all. One way to do that is to appeal to their empathy and sense of altruism: Explain how their actions can help protect others, including many people they personally care about, such as grandparents and neighbors.

How to Deal with Mental Health Issues Due to Isolation

To counteract the effects of social isolation, parents can help adolescents find ways to support their well-being each day.

Help teens find new ways to connect. The antidote to isolation and loneliness is connection. Although we’re staying apart physically, people are finding creative ways to feel socially connected during COVID-19. Teens can have movie nights with their friends, using apps like Netflix Party. They can use Zoom to have virtual birthday parties or chats with close friends. And they can spend time online or on the phone with grandparents or other extended family members. Parents may need to be a little looser with guidelines around digital media use so teens can fulfill their need for socializing.

Take advantage of opportunities to improve parent-child communication. Parents can use open-ended questions for teens to get a sense of what they’re feeling and how they’re coping being socially isolated. Because families are spending their time at home, there are more opportunities for parents to learn about their teen’s inner life. When teens do open up and express their emotions, parents can acknowledge that we are all struggling to some degree right now, and it’s perfectly natural to feel sad, angry, and worried.

Read “Supporting Teens’ Well-Being While at Home.”

Support teens in prioritizing self-care. When teens are feeling anxious or depressed, self-care is often the first thing to go. Therefore, teenagers may need help in developing and maintaining healthy habits in the absence of the structure provided by school and other activities. Parents need to support kids in eating well, keeping to a regular sleeping schedule, and creating a daily routine that includes physical exercise and social connection. Mindfulness practices like yoga, breathing practices, and guided relaxation, using videos or apps, can help teens manage their emotions and stay calm.

Seek professional help if warranted. If your teen is struggling with the effects of social isolation on mental health, including showing symptoms of depression or anxiety, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional. While in-person appointments aren’t possible currently, many therapists and treatment centers are offering online assessments and therapy. If your teen needs support, give us a call and we’ll help you locate the resources your family needs during this challenging time.

 

Sources:

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 Mar;10(2):227–37.

Health Psychol. 2005 May;24(3):297­–306.

Science. 1998 Jul;241(4865):540–545.

Photo by Norbert Kundrak from Pexels