Social isolation and loneliness: a talk about coronavirus’s effects on mental health
Thursday webinar to explore the effects of the pandemic and how Americans in isolation can overcome feelings of loneliness
For The Aspen Times
Editor’s Note: Sponsored content brought to you by Renew Senior Communities
What: Renew Senior Communities, in partnership with The Aspen Times, presents “Coronavirus Isolation and Mental Health,” a webinar panel discussion.
Who: Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist and a member of the psychology department at York university in Toronto, and who has been researching and teaching about loneliness for more than 40 years; Mimi McFaul, a clinical psychologist and the deputy director of the National Mental Health Innovation Center at University of Colorado; Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Senior Communities.
When: Thursday, April 23, 11 a.m.
As the global coronavirus pandemic upends our lives and forces us to stay in our homes, it also highlights and increases the experience that many adults were already facing before the pandemic: loneliness.
A January 2020 Cigna survey of more than 10,000 working Americans revealed that 61 percent — or roughly three in five people — reported feeling lonely. The National Poll on Healthy Aging reports that about a third of seniors are lonely. And these statistics measured loneliness before a global pandemic mandated social isolation.
An April 23 webinar hosted by Renew Senior Communities, in partnership with The Aspen Times, aims to explore the relationship between coronavirus isolation and mental health. Ami Rokach, the author of “Loneliness, Love and All That’s Between,” is a clinical psychologist who has been researching and teaching about loneliness for more than 40 years, and Mimi McFaul, a clinical psychologist and the deputy director of the National Mental Health Innovation Center at University of Colorado, will discuss the pandemic’s effects on mental health and the tools that can help people of all ages and backgrounds cope.
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Alone vs. loneliness
The state of being alone, or social isolation, is the physical separation from other people, while loneliness is a distressed feeling of being alone that can happen with or without social isolation. People talk about loneliness as if we’re experiencing the same thing, but loneliness is actually a subjective experience which may differ from person to person, Rokach said.
“While subjective, it’s always very painful, very distressing and something we don’t choose to experience,” he added. “There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness may be experienced when we are, or are not, alone and is always painful and unwanted, while solitude is being alone because we chose to be alone to do what we can best do alone, such as reflect, take a walk in the woods, write, compose, etc. Solitude is very refreshing and a welcome experience.”
The negative feelings associated with loneliness and isolation are what led Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Senior Communities, to want to explore this and similar topics in a series of online discussions. He hopes the events can lead to meaningful social impacts in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.
The loneliness stigma
Rokach has seen hundreds of patients who suffered from loneliness, yet only one patient in all those years initially reported feeling lonely, though later many admitted to feeling so.
“That indicates that we don’t admit, even to ourselves, when we’re lonely,” he said. “If I’m lonely, it means nobody wants to be with me, and if that’s the case, it must mean I’m not good or I’m inadequate, hence a ‘loser.’ There is a serious stigma about loneliness in our culture.
“Sometimes, loneliness and depression are seen as one and the same. We can differentiate between them by what they make us want. When people feel lonely, they’re often yearning to get closer to others, yet those who are depressed often tell others to ‘leave me alone,’” Rokach said.
That’s how psychologists know the experiences are not one in the same. In loneliness, people can slide into depression, but not all people experiencing depression are lonely.
“Loneliness became now a ‘hot’ topic, due to COVID-19. The reason that people now openly discuss it is that we can ‘blame’ the virus for our loneliness, and that eliminates the stigma that is usually connected to loneliness,” Rokach said.
Loneliness and health
In the last five or so years, loneliness has been linked to increased risks of serious health problems such as hypertension, sleep disturbances, enhanced dementia in seniors and even death. Chronic loneliness is as bad as smoking, obesity and diabetes.
“Loneliness can predict morbidity and mortality,” Rokach said. “The less stress we have — and loneliness is stressful — the better our immune system behaves, and the stronger it is.”
Using technology to conquer feelings of loneliness
There’s good news for social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic in that technology is helping us stay connected. It’s also creating a petri dish of innovation, McFaul said.
The use of telehealth — where patients can meet with providers virtually — has been surging during the pandemic after the healthcare industry as a whole has been working on making it more mainstream for more than a decade. Beyond telehealth, McFaul’s work at the National Mental Health Innovation Center is looking into ways that technology such as virtual reality can be used in both physical and mental health care.
“We’re already testing virtual reality with seniors,” she said. “With any isolated community, virtual reality is about taking them into an immersive world, somewhere they couldn’t go on their own.”
Rethinking loneliness during COVID-19
Loneliness is a concept that wasn’t really legitimized until research has substantiated its risks on physical health, McFaul said. Loneliness was only talked about in traditionally isolated populations until about the last 10 years.
“And now with COVID, it has become a universal topic,” she said. “But the cause and duration of it are different, which is interesting. I don’t know how this will lead to differences in how we recover from loneliness because for those who weren’t already experiencing loneliness, it is temporary in some ways.”
Rokach said the way we think about current circumstances can help us overcome the experience of loneliness. Even the term “social distancing” should really be “physical distancing,” he said.
“When you hear ‘social distancing,’ think of all things that can conjure up — ‘I’m alone, nobody is getting close to me, people prefer to stay away,’” Rokach said. “We can get wrapped into those thoughts and end up being depressed and experience loneliness.”
Instead of feeling as if something has been imposed on us and we have no control, Rokach suggests thinking of the current situation as a choice.
“Being alone is just physical — much of the way we feel about it is influenced by how we look at it,” he said. “By turning loneliness into solitude, we can understand that being alone doesn’t mean being lonely. It will not feel lonely, but a period where we could do and experience things that we usually cannot.”
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