Stressed about heading into a second year of COVID-19? You're not the only one. Many of us are feeling more anxious, stressed, and sleepless. The level of isolation we're experiencing right now is unprecedented -- and is morphing into a serious mental health crisis, experts say.
Social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably. But it’s important to understand the difference. “In this space, we think of social isolation as more of an objective measure about quantity of relationships, contacts, how long you see people. But loneliness points to the felt sense, the subjective feeling of isolation,” says Steven Michael Crane, a research scholar at Stanford University. That’s why we sometimes feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by people.
Before COVID-19, three in five Americans reported feeling lonely (according to Cigna’s U.S. Loneliness Index). But now that number is likely much higher after more than a year in lockdown. Loneliness doesn’t just make us feel bad; it also has major health impacts. Experts warn that chronic loneliness can increase the risk of hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, and carries the same health consequences as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
A recent survey by the APA (American Psychologica Association) found that 84% of adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the prior two weeks. The most common were feelings of anxiety (47%), sadness (44%) and anger (39%). Additionally, 2 in 3 adults (67%) said the number of issues America is facing is overwhelming to them.
At United Way, we’re making mental health a priority. At a recent South by Southwest virtual session, we shared the innovative ways we’re addressing social isolation and loneliness. United Way Worldwide has teamed up with No Wrong Door Virginia, a network of resources of long-term supports and services for seniors and people with disabilities in Virginia. Together, we've developed an online tool to holistically address mental health needs and any basic human needs (food, shelter, financial assistance) through a screening assessment and our nationwide database of human and social services. In the Netherlands, we’re helping isolated seniors and refugees overcome loneliness through video calls, creating unlikely friendships, and improving language skills.
Check out highlights of our SXSW session below. (You can watch the entire hour-long session here.)
Loneliness can affect anyone-but everyone can help.
- Call 211. The 24/7 confidential referral hotline provides referrals if you or someone you know needs help locating mental health resources, talking through a problem, or exploring treatment options. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness. (If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911.)
- Mix up your routine. Making little changes to your daily routine can make your day more exciting. Attempt a new recipe for dinner, say one thing you’re grateful for, go on a walk. They may seem like insignificant changes, but they can improve your mental well-being overtime.
- Look for the good. Practice the rule of “three good things” and ask friends and family to do the same. At the end of each day, reflect on three good things that happened — large or small. This helps decrease anxiety, counter depression and build emotional resiliency, according to the APA.
- Teach your grandparents how to use Zoom. Senior citizens, especially those living in nursing homes, are disproportionately affected by social isolation. Whether they’re our grandparents, friends or neighbors, check in with them. You can help them run errands, teach them how to use technology, and just show them you care.