Isolation has mental health consequences.
Our society’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has entailed months of “lockdowns,” social isolation, and restricted movement. We are now seeing some serious consequences of these responses to the pandemic. Mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse have all increased during the pandemic (Agha, 2021). Enforced isolation appears to be a particularly potent trigger for these increases. Reduced contact with friends and smaller households are correlated with increased difficulties (Bland et al., 2021). Those who already struggle with mental health difficulties or substance abuse are likely to experience deterioration during this time.
While these effects on adults are sufficiently concerning, the impact on children may be devastating. In particular, children kept out of school are showing deterioration in their mental health, with increases in depression and suicide attempts. The impact of COVID-19 on families through loss of employment, financial insecurity, loss of child care services, and available social support for families has resulted in increases in child abuse (Cho, Smith, Cory, & Smith, 2021). Intimate partner violence has also increased during the pandemic (Viero, Barbara, Montisci, Kustermann, & Cattaneo, 2021). Thus, unintended but predictable consequences from the pandemic and the consequent “lockdowns” with the associated social isolation are obvious.
The response to COVID-19 and the effort to control the pandemic by isolating individuals and families is exposing millions of children to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which we know to be predictive of future difficulties, ranging from increased likelihood of smoking to suicide and increased morbidity and mortality in general (Boccia, 2017). The relationship between ACEs and these negative outcomes is quite direct: the more ACEs an individual experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood that they will experience negative outcomes in adulthood. Maltreatment, substance abuse, and parental mental illness are all ACEs that are increasing through the social isolation imposed on families to deal with the pandemic.
Our children’s well-being and healthy development, socially, cognitively, emotionally, and physically, all depend on the healthy functioning of families. As the pandemic continues, and our response to it continues to isolate families and increase these unhealthy outcomes, the futures of our children are becoming darker. What can we do about this? There are many points of contact between distressed families and sources of help. Community mental health services, emergency room resources, and shelters for victims of intimate partner violence have all been in demand for their services. The most powerful resource, however, may well be within the families themselves.
Healthy, supportive relationships can be the strongest protection against negative outcomes and one of the strongest resources for recovery. This social support is a significant element of many of the professional and community-based support groups for alcohol and substance abuse recovery. A relationship can build resilience. That resilience is built on what relationships provide: whether it be tangible resources, emotional support, or developing coping strategies. Therefore, alongside our efforts to control this pandemic we need to consider ways to enhance resilience and protect families from the effects of isolation that we know increase the likelihood of negative outcomes for the children in these families.