Margaret Eaton is the national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Health authorities are calling on Canadians to practise “social distancing,” a way to mitigate transmission of the novel coronavirus. This is a term widely used in infection control, and refers to approaches for minimizing close physical contact at the individual level by keeping a two-metre distance, and at the community level through closures of public and private spaces as well as cancellations of events where large numbers of people might gather.
But while this is the right public-health approach, it has the wrong name.
The implication of the phrase “social distancing” is that we should be putting space between us socially – but we only need to be distancing ourselves physically. In other words, we should be social and participating in the community at large – just so long as it doesn’t require physical proximity.
Indeed, what people need most right now is social connection, because real connection is essential to our mental health. Studies have shown that social networks – which provide emotional support, companionship and opportunities for meaningful social engagement – have a beneficial effect on mental-health outcomes, stress reactions, psychological well-being and self-esteem. People with weak or few social connections, on the other hand, are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, anti-social behaviour and suicidal behaviours. In fact, the World Health Organization, which has been on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, has identified social inclusion and integration as important protective factors for mental health. Loneliness is bad for our health.
This was already the case before the coronavirus pandemic prompted an isolating response. In recent years, Western societies have been grappling with crises of loneliness, and in Canada, more people are living alone than ever before. Practically speaking, losing social connection can make it easy to also lose the motivation to eat healthy, be active or take one’s medication and research has found that loneliness can heighten risks to physical health, such as heart attacks, Alzheimer’s disease and the spread of cancer. The issue also touches lives across the age and cultural spectrum: A 2017 Vancouver Foundation survey found that nearly a third of people aged 18-24 in the bustling city said that they felt lonely, while a June poll by Angus Reid noted how loneliness was more keenly felt by people who belonged to a visible minority, who are Indigenous, who have mobility challenges, and who are LGBTQ-identifying.
Health authorities have acknowledged these consequences of social distancing, advising people to go outside to avoid this mental toll. But according to research from the Lancet, people under quarantine can experience confusion, anger and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and that isolation coupled with the broad misnomer of “social distancing” may only increase the need for mental-health services. That’s troubling, since the supply of non-primary medical services such as therapy and support groups has become even scarcer lately as community agencies cancel or reduce programs, or work through less accessible virtual means.
If you’re in quarantine or self-isolation, it is important that you stay feeling connected. Follow the “buddy up” advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada, especially if you live alone; your “buddy” is someone who can check on you and do errands for you. Stay in close touch with your support network. The phone call may have gone out of fashion, but maybe it’s time to bring it back. If you have access to video, via FaceTime, Skype or other video technologies, you may want to turn on that camera. If you’re working remotely, hold a video conference instead of a standard conference call.
For those experiencing heightened anxiety and depression in this time of stress, online and telephone-based mental health supports can keep you connected to the help you need to cope.
This pandemic may very well be a time to reflect on how loneliness has itself become epidemic in our society. And, just as with COVID-19, we can take real action to prevent it from spreading.
So, while we go about maintaining the two-metre physical distance between ourselves and others, let’s also remember that social distancing isn’t quite the right phrase: It is only a directive to cut ourselves off in physical terms. We actually need each other more than ever, even – or especially – when we’re asked to extend the space between us.
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