Far Apart but in This Together

By Jamie Lindsey and Savanah Mandeville 

I was just as happy as every other introvert when health experts around the world started telling everyone to “socially distance” themselves to contain the spread of COVID-19. Staying inside and bingeing Netflix all day? Count me in. It can be nice to get a “break” from the world, even if it is under such unprecedented circumstances. However, I can’t help but think about some of the latent consequences of social distancing and what people who already deal with social isolation think of everyone else’s enjoyment the time away. For many people whose home life is isolating or whose home is a difficult or unsafe place to be, social distancing can feel like a trap. With businesses, museums, stores, sporting events, parks, libraries and many other activities closing around the world, isolated people are getting more isolated and we face the potential for devastating effects on those experiencing mental illness or abuse at home. 

We must follow the recommended guidelines to control the virus, and social distancing is the best tool we have to stop COVID-19. But it’s important to be aware of who in our society is most at risk and what we can do to help. 

Adolescents 

Isolating adolescents who deal with depression or other mental illnesses can have negative results. 

School creates a pattern of routine for children and adolescents, many of whom thrive on the routine, no matter how much they might complain about it. Social interaction, assignments, tests and projects, and a steady meal in a school setting have been shown to have positive impacts on adolescent behavior, not to mention the availability of free and reduced cost school lunch.  

As a teacher, I see this firsthand. 

I always worry about some of my students when we’re out for Spring Break, Christmas, and Summer. Whether it be neglect, abuse, low income, loneliness, depression, anxiety, the list goes on, I know school gives many of my students a break from a bad home life. 

Social distancing is just another form of social isolation. Historically, there is always an increase of suicidal behavior during a time of social isolation. The adolescent suicide rate is already on the rise and is the second leading cause of death in youth aged 10-24, according to the American Association of Suicidology.  

The seemingly obvious solution, connecting through technology, may not necessarily hold the key though. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book “iGen,” has published several studies based on research uncovering detrimental connections between the omnipresent smartphone, social media, and depression.

According to this article by USA Today: “The review also found that social media ‘can affect adolescents’ self-view and interpersonal relationships through social comparison and negative interactions, including cyberbullying; moreover, social media content often involves normalization and even promotion of self-harm and suicidality among youth.’”

So what can we do?

If you know an at-risk adolescent, reach out and let them know you’re available if they need to vent, blow off steam, or someone to talk to. Phone calls and Facetime are stronger than texts and social media.

If you are a teen, or you know a teen, in crisis and in need of support from a counselor, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) 24 hours a day and you will be connected with the nearest crisis center in your area. Take immediate action!

Abuse Survivors

For those quarantined with an abuser, this period of social distancing can be a very real nightmare. 

According to the American Society for Positive Care for Children, child abuse reports involved 7.5 million children last year. We also need to think about adult victims of domestic abuse in the home. According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, someone is abused by their intimate partner every 20 minutes in the United States.  

The insecurity brought on by our nation’s troubled economy coupled with increasing public health fears have the potential to exacerbate abuse in an already volatile home. 

In addition, families being kept in close quarters with limited access to resources and/or income paired with the closure of many domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters may diminish the chances for an abused persons’ escape from their situation. 

For any victims and survivors who need support, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7, every day. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

Loneliness 

As we all self-quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19, loneliness and isolation can actually weaken the immune system.

Studies show that people who are lonely have higher levels of cortisol, show a weakened immune response to pathogens, and are at an increased risk for premature death. 

Consider elderly people who may be reluctant to go to the grocery store or a single parent of a child with an immunodeficiency afraid to venture out. Those among us with, or who care for those with, compromised immune systems are already at an even higher risk for contracting the coronavirus or suffering the health effects of loneliness and isolation. 

For those who must be quarantined because they are infected with the virus, depriving the sick of social connection and physical closeness may make it harder for them to defeat the virus. 

According to this article, human touch is vital for wellbeing. If you are quarantined with people you trust and who are healthy, something as simple as a hug or holding hands can have many benefits for mental health. Safe, mutually consenting physical touch leads to the release of oxytocin, which helps regulate your fight or flight system and calms your body in times of stress.

For those who are untouchable because they’re sick with COVID-19, affectionate therapy dogs may provide measurable benefit. (As of this writing, WHO guidelines suggest pets are safe.)

Reach out and Connect

Even while participating in social distancing, make sure to reach out to others close to you to make sure they have what they need. There are many groups starting to spread around Facebook that can help those who need assistance. Groups like Joplin Caremongering is a growing group of Joplin citizens that are already extending their help to others who don’t have toilet paper, diapers, and formula because it was already sold out. The CARE organization is a charity that is striving for equality for those in poverty and at risk for contracting viruses like COVID-19. You can also look at the Support for Families Facebook group for those who need support dealing with the virus. The Lafayette house and other homeless shelters will be available until they are full. If you are displaying symptoms of the virus, they may turn you away, for most shelters don’t have a way to isolate people. 

Please be generous to people. Please reach out. You never know what someone is experiencing at home and they may need some help. If things begin to get worse, resources will start to go scarce for the most underprivileged in our society. 

Be kind. Help others when they need help. Remember those who may be suffering the most during this time of social distancing. Think of them. Empathize with them and be there for them until we can return to our normal routines.

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