With social distancing and home-isolation now the new norm, millions of Australians are now facing a new way of life.
But as countries and cities implement harsher restrictions on where you can go and what you can do to stop the spread of COVID-19, there may we one aspect of our health we’re forgetting to care for.
According to architect and researcher Jan Golemiewski, isolation due to coronavirus could be having a major impact on our mental health.
“People find meaningfulness in so many different ways but universally one of the most important ways we find meaningfulness is through social contact,” he said.
But what happens when our social contact is cut off or becomes digitalised?
Can technology replace human contact?
According to Mr Golemiewski, the answer is no.
The reason for this is how the environments in which we are now socialising have changed dramatically.
“When people interact, they interact in the context of their physical environment,” he said.
When this environment becomes your bedroom or your computer screen, we lose the most vital parts of social connectedness.
“Zoom isn’t the full experience,” he said. “Communication is complex, we don’t just pick up on what people say, we don’t just pick up on what people see in their faces.”
For the thousands of workers now conducting business online, Mr Golemiewski said connecting digitally from our homes and bedrooms can blur the lines between home and work which can increase stress.
“What does it mean if I started taking Zoom calls in the middle of the night, does that mean my bed has become my workplace? That’s really not good.”
What is the impact of losing person-to-person contact?
Mr Golemiewski said the impacts of social isolation could have immense ripple effects on people’s mental health.
“I think when people talk about social distancing that will be the worst of it,” he said.
“This has huge implications for social isolation because it means that when we’re not actually doing the things we need to do online, we more isolated and that’s a worry, it’s a huge worry.”
“This virus might have its real victims in the future, in the fallout in terms of mental health and that fallout will be much younger.”
CEO of ReachOut Ashley de Silva said physical isolation often goes hand-in-hand with emotional isolation.
“If we don’t nurture social connectedness, it can lead to people feeling more alone and being stuck with their own anxieties and concerns and not feeling supported in this unprecedented time.”
Mr Golemiewski a loss of social connection could result in a loss of meaningfulness in people’s lives and he said this is the biggest danger.
“If we start sitting alone in our Zoom meetings and our Zoom classes and we think ‘hang on, what am I doing this for? This feels meaningless’ then we’ve lost something really powerful, something has just slipped out from under our feet and our health will follow,” he said.
“It’s really going to tip people over the edge, it can’t not and that’s a very serious health concern.”
“I’m absolutely not suggesting it’s wrong to socially isolate and get this virus over with as quickly as possible, but what I am saying is there is a very serious risk and a very serious cost and it’s not just a financial cost … there’s also a social and mental cost.”
How can we help care for our minds during social isolation?
Mr Golemiewski said to prevent a surge in mental illness now and in the future, a change in perspective is needed.
“It might not be as squeaky a wheel as protecting ourselves from a virus, the real protection comes from finding a sense of meaningfulness, comprehensibility and manageability,” he said.
“This obsession with trying to keep ourselves away from the coronavirus is only about the physical domain … it reduces our humanity down to just existing, like we’re machines and we’re not and we can put up with it for a certain amount of time, but we will go stir crazy.”
Mr De Silva said experts in the mental health sector have been trying to rethink the idea of “social distancing” as being separate to physical distancing.
“We’ve been trying to conceptualise how this time can be more about physical distance but social connection. Isolation can be physical but the emotional part of social connect can still be there,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of remaining connected to community and maintain routine.
“We need to encourage people to think about the emotional side of this but also the proactive steps that can be taken, whether that be self-management techniques, getting across the basics of diet, sleep, exercise all the way through to the crisis supports that might exist and all the things in between that.”
Mr De Silva also said it’s important to reassure people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We can get through this and we will get through this and there are plenty of services available to help.”
Readers seeking support and information about mental health support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
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