In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is social isolation.
Social isolation involves an objective removal from social contact and relationships, which may occur voluntarily or involuntarily. The term perceived social isolation is used to include a subjective sense of loneliness. While loneliness and social isolation may occur together, that’s not always the case.
Social support networks
An obvious way to consider social isolation is to look at how many people are in someone’s support network. Another important factor is the functional role those people play in terms of the social support that they can (or are willing to) provide. Social support can come in a number of forms, which can be divided into four broad categories: emotional (nurturing), informational, companionship, or tangible, more hands-on kinds of support. This support may come from personal and professional sources (i.e. informal and formal). Someone who’s socially isolated may have a lack of support across multiple domains.
It makes a difference whether one is talking about perceived support vs. actual support. Perceived social support is associated with better mental health outcomes, but there’s not the same association with actual received support. Relational regulation theory suggests that this may be because interacting with others through everyday conversations that suit an individual’s personal taste help to promote emotional regulation, thus improving coping abilities.
Who is socially isolated?
There are multiple factors that can contribute to social isolation, including both environmental factors and personal factors like personality traits. Mental illness can also have a major impact.
Canadian figures show that 20% of older adults are socially isolated. Australian figures show that 9.5% of the population over age 15 report a lack of social support, with the highest rates reported at 11.7% in the 55-59 age bracket. Those under age 25 had the lowest rates of being socially isolated at 7.1%, and then in the 25-29 age bracket, the rate jumped to 11%.
Potential consequences of social isolation, regardless of age, include:
- weakened immune system
- poor sleep quality
- increased risk of depression, dementia, heart disease, stroke
- decreased quality of life
The increase in risk is similar to what’s seen with obesity or smoking.
While pets can’t provide the same social support that humans can, I think the companionship and unconditional acceptance from them can help to offset limitations in available in-person supports. My pet guinea pigs are really important for my mental well-being, and they help my home feel like a social space rather than a place where I’m completely alone.
Pets may also be a way to increase social contact, particularly for dog owners who are likely to come into contact with other dog owners on a regular basis.
With the current pandemic situation, many people are facing enforced isolation in a physical sense. If this was happening in the pre-internet days, it would be quite a bit harder, but as it is, most of us are still able to access some level of social support.
In some ways, I think the COVID world is built for introverts, as social contact isn’t so necessary to recharge the mental energy batteries. However, introverts are susceptible to loneliness just like anyone else is. We all need social support of some kind, even if the preferred form and amount vary from person to person.
In addition, certain forms of social support don’t work well online, including physical affection and hands-on, practical assistance. For people who live alone, this is likely to be more of an issue.
Accessing online support
Does the hyper-connectivity of the online world make it any easier to genuinely connect with others? Probably some of both, depending on how you use it. For people interacting in online mental health communities, I would guess that it’s easier to access a greater degree of social support and genuine connectedness than in other corners of the internet.
Personally, with where my illness is at now, my preference is isolation in a physical sense. While I have some in-person supports, most of my emotional support happens online. I very rarely feel lonely, and I feel quite comfortable in my fortress of solitude.
Has social isolation been an issue for you before the pandemic? Have the current restrictions caused major changes in the social support that you’re able to access?
You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Social isolation and loneliness.
- Bhatti, A.B., & Adler, J.R. (2017). The pathophysiology of perceived social isolation. Cureus, 9(1), e994.
- Menec, V., & Newall, N. (2017). Definitions of social isolation: A pilot study using CLSA . Brandon University/University of Manitoba.
- Novotney, A. (2019). The risks of social isolation. Monitor on Psychology, 50(5).
- Wikipedia: Social support
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.