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.
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 because interacting with others through everyday conversations that suit an individual’s personal taste help to promote emotional regulation, thus improving coping abilities.
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.
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.
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%.
It appears that pet ownership may increase social contact and thereby reduce isolation, although that would likely depend quite a bit on the type of animal. My guinea pigs don’t get out much, although when they do they tend to attract attention. Still, the kind of social/emotional support that they do provide is significant.
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.
However, 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 likeluy to be more of an issue.
Personally, with where my illness is at now, my preference is isolation in a physical sense. Regardless of the public health situation, I get some forms of social support online, some in my in-person world, and others not at all. I very rarely feel lonely, and feel quite comfortable in my fortress of solitude. In terms of risk of negative health effects, I think any impact would be minor compared to the effects of the depression.
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 here.
- 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 presentation.
- Novotney, A. (2019). The risks of social isolation. Monitor on Psychology, 50(5).
- Wikipedia: Social support
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.