Researcher with Sask. roots explores impacts of long-term isolation

·3 min read

Restrictions on in-person social activities have been a critical part of combating the COVID-19 pandemic and are likely to continue in the months ahead. But as the pandemic continues, researchers have also been exploring the impacts of loneliness and social isolation on mental health.

Emilie Kossick is a knowledge manager at the Canadian Institute of Public Safety Research and Treatment and holds a master's degree in experimental and applied psychology from the University of Regina.

She says while this year has been a dramatic example of social isolation on a large scale, the actual problem is not new.

"There are groups like Arctic researchers or astronauts preparing for long-haul missions who have experienced it," she said of isolation. "Inmates or seniors living in long-term care facilities also experience social isolation."

Because of this, researchers have already been studying the short and long-term effects of isolation. Kossick said she has come across a number of studies that may help explain what people are going through at this point in the pandemic.

"Within three months to a year, [isolation] starts to affect your sleep patterns," she said. "It impairs your immune system and our neurocognitive functions. It's also common to see changes in personality. If you're experiencing loneliness, you can feel depressed or anxious.

"And these all appear to be symptoms caused by decreases in brain volume in areas of the brain that control decision-making, social behaviour, emotion, regulation, learning and memory."

In the longer term, Kossick said social isolation can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, memory decline and dementia.

Kossick said many of our negative reactions to prolonged isolation stem from the fact that humans evolved as social creatures.

"Even introverted people who are comfortable on their own usually have a small group of friends and family that they rely on for support and social connection," she said. "So when we're denied that support — like during a pandemic — or when it disappears as we age, it has a great effect on the way our brain works, because it's just not designed to work alone."

While she recognized that many of our normal strategies for breaking isolation "just don't work in a pandemic," Kossick said there are strategies people can use to shore up their mental health and feel less lonely this year.

"The things you can do … are to create as much structure and predictability as you can with the pieces of your life that you can control," she said. "So try to structure your day. Incorporate activities and hobbies that you enjoy. And embrace technology's ability to keep you in contact with friends and family."

Kossick also suggested attending an art event online, whether that's a virtual gallery opening or a live-streamed concert, can help "bring us all together" while we remain at home.

While the collective experience of the pandemic won't last forever, Kossick hopes some of what we've learned this year will be able to help people who were already isolated before the pandemic began.

She said she hoped that translated to increased research and understanding in the public helps combat social isolation in populations that deal with it on a regular basis outside of a pandemic.

"I think this has really shined a light on the causes and effects of loneliness, especially for people in long-term care, who right now are very much alone," she said. "We're trying to do that for their safety and their physical health, but obviously it's impacting their mental health."