Social isolation has grown into a national issue. Adobe Stock Photos

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly eighteen months ago, health officials have taken note of the mental and physical impact social isolation has had on the American public. The pandemic has caused widespread isolation thanks to social distancing, including remote working, online education, cancellation of sports events, remote religious groups, closure of museums, sports, professional events, and entertainment. American Addiction Centers believes that the pandemic has illuminated the fundamental need for social contact within our lives, and, moving forward, the American public will likely see widespread health initiatives encouraging social interaction to combat the effects of COVID-19’s nationwide isolation.

Although social isolation is not a new mental health problem plaguing the United States, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home-orders, quarantine, and social distancing protocols, it has grown into a national issue. For the majority of Americans, their workplace is the number one source of social engagement. While essential workers were allowed to continue working at their job site throughout the pandemic, the remaining 52% of American adults lost their primary source of social interaction. For the 28% of Americans who live alone, this development meant little to no human contact for months on end. As a result, preliminary surveys showed that within the first month of COVID-19, national levels of loneliness rose by 20-30%, while emotional distress tripled. While the full mental effects of COVID-19 isolation have yet to be studied, American Addiction Center stresses that this evidence shows that a greater number of Americans felt the impact of social isolation during the pandemic than anticipated.

Those Most at Risk

To better recognize those currently experiencing social isolation, American Addiction Centers believes it is essential to know which groups are most at risk. Some of the most common groups who experience social isolation include immigrants, marginalized people, and older adults.

Immigrants - Immigrants often experience social isolation due to language barriers, economic challenges, and limited social ties within their new community.

Marginalized groups – Those who frequently experience discrimination, stigma, and prejudice can often feel socially isolated. For this reason, people of color, LGBTQIA people, and differently-abled people often report higher numbers of social isolation.

Older adults – Members of older generations often live alone, have fewer family and friend connections, and experience physical and mental disabilities, contributing further to their lack of social interaction.

Signs and Symptoms of Social Isolation

Every person has experienced a time when they have isolated themselves away from family, friends, or coworkers. While these periods are common and not cause for alarm, if social isolation lasts for long periods, it can lead to long-lasting mental health issues. The CDC defines social isolation as a lack of social connections or social interaction. This is separate from loneliness, as those who are not socially isolated can still feel lonely. Those who are socially isolated can suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, or another mental health disorder. In the past, researchers have found individuals in certain age groups will show different symptoms of loneliness compared to other isolated people in other age groups. For example, those between the ages of 18-49 may struggle to concentrate at work or school and eat more frequently, while children are more likely to experience behavioral and emotional distress. However, the following symptoms are the most common warning signs of unhealthy social isolation:

  • Feelings of extreme depression and social anxiety
  • Avoiding social interactions or activities that they once found enjoyable
  • Feeling distressed during long periods of solitude
  • Aggressive or passive behavior
  • Poor sleep quality and poor self-care or neglect

Effects of Isolation on Mental Health

Since the 1970s, various studies have found a strong correlation between isolation and poor mental and physical health. Those without strong social connections are more likely to develop depression and anxiety and affect cognitive abilities, such as concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, and changing negative self-beliefs. Additionally, scientists have found those with severe social isolation often have poor immune system function and high inflammation. This is likely due to social isolation’s “fight-or-flight” stress signaling, which can weaken an individual’s immune system over prolonged periods of time. However, most alarmingly, researchers have also found a link between social isolation and an increased risk for developing severe mental illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In 2018, Florida State University College of Medicine published a study in the Journals of Gerontology on the connection between loneliness and dementia. Angelina Sutin, Ph.D., led the study and collected data on more than 12,000 adults over the age of 50. Every two years, study participants rated their levels of social isolation and loneliness and completed a cognitive battery test. After ten years, Angelina Sutin, Ph.D., concluded the study and found that social isolation and loneliness increased a person’s risk of dementia by 40%.

Another prominent study regarding social isolation was conducted by Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Chicago. The study, completed in 2015, reviewed the effects of perceived social isolation across a person’s life span and found that loneliness and social isolation can have a severe negative impact on an individual’s physical, mental, and cognitive health. The study linked social isolation with a number of different health consequences, including depression, impaired executive function, poor cardiovascular function, and accelerated cognitive decline. The Hawkley study later inspired Kassandra Alcaraz, Ph.D., MPH, American Cancer Society public health researcher, to conduct her own study into the connection between race, social isolation, and premature death. After analyzing data collected from 580,000 adults, in 2019, Kassandra Alcaraz published her findings in the American Journal of Epidemiology and reported that social isolation doubled the risk of early death among black participants, while it increased the risk among white participants by 60 to 84%.