The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the measures intended to prevent or contain the pandemic around the world have caused a lot of problems. They have threatened, directly and indirectly, people’s health (e.g., difficulties in the use of health services), work and financial well-being, privacy and civil liberties, and nearly everything else previously taken for granted (e.g., attending sporting events, concerts, or even just going for a walk).
One of the most significant psychological and social effects of the new coronavirus pandemic and its containment measures includes the disruption of social connections. At a time when we all need to be as resilient as we can be, many have not had access to a key ingredient of resilience: in-person social support.
Not surprisingly, many have reported feeling lonely and depressed during the pandemic. And now, a new study suggests these reports reflect a bigger trend in worsening mental health in a large segment of the population. In an article in the August issue of Psychiatry Research, Killgore and colleagues present evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased loneliness in Americans, and that loneliness is associated with rates of depression and suicidal ideation.
Study and results
The researchers administered the UCLA Loneliness Scale-3, a measure of loneliness, and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), a screening tool for depression, to 1,013 people from 50 U.S. states. This nationally representative sample included American adults between the ages of 18 and 35 years (446 males). The administration occurred on April 9-10, 2020. This was during the third week of the COVID-19 related National Emergency.
According to the results, 94% of respondents reported they had been “sheltering-in-place,” and 62% reported they had been feeling “socially isolated much of the time.”
The average score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale-3 was 44. Based on a cutoff score of 47, 43% of participants met the criteria for high loneliness. Lonely individuals, when compared to non-lonely ones, were significantly more depressed (M=11±6 vs. M=4±5). In fact, 55% of lonely participants, but 15% of non-lonely individuals, met the criteria for moderate to severe depression.
In addition, lonely participants, compared to non-lonely ones, scored much higher on the PHQ-9 suicidal ideation question. Specifically, while only 5% of non-lonely individuals endorsed a degree of suicidal ideation, this was true of 35% of lonely respondents.
As the authors write, the “potential for elevated suicide risk during the pandemic should be taken seriously by healthcare providers, particularly given huge economic stresses produced by recent job losses and furloughs.”
Recommendations for managing your stress during the pandemic
1. Remember that many people are feeling anxious and depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is normal to experience distress. Telling oneself that he or she should not be feeling this way is invalidating and may only increase feelings of anguish and pain. Reminding oneself that millions of other people around the world are trying to find helpful ways to cope, however, might help us feel less alone and disconnected.
2. It is essential to find ways to reduce feelings of loneliness. How? Join an online support group. Or call and video chat regularly with supportive people in your life, be they friends, family members, relatives, or even coworkers. Having interactions with others (e.g., neighbors), from a safe distance, may also reduce loneliness.
Remember, in Italy, some people sang from their balconies during the lockdown. As Rudi De Fanti, 49, told NBC News, “In the past few days, most of our life has been on small terraces and balconies… You read, you speak with your neighbors, you become friends with people that lived next to you for 10 years but which you had never engaged with before.”
3. Do not hesitate to seek mental health treatment. A number of online informational resources on COVID-19 and mental health are available as well. For instance, see the CDC, NAMI, and MHA. And some healthcare providers are able to do virtual counseling.
4. Though the COVID-19 pandemic is different from other challenges you have faced before, many of the strategies used previously can help you cope successfully with the pandemic. These include getting enough sleep, exercising, relaxation practices (e.g., yoga, stretching, breathing exercises), healthy eating, avoiding drugs and alcohol, limiting exposure to news, setting meaningful goals, and creating and sticking to a flexible daily routine.
It is important to remain hopeful and optimistic. Though there will be challenges ahead, and some days will be harder than other days, the current situation will not go on forever. These difficulties are temporary. And we, human beings, are resilient—often more so than we may believe.