Isolation; the effects on mental health.
Years of research have proven isolation is detrimental to mental health. This is one of the reasons why the American justice system continues to use techniques such as solitary confinement. The scale of the coronavirus has been unprecedented, and continues to baffle intrigued persons around the World. In this article, I'll try to observe and consolidate how and why isolation affects us, and how we can adapt to it.
Isolation: how does it affect us?
The year is 2018. It is the 21st of November.
A professional US poker player named Rich Alati bet US $100,000 that he would be able to survive 30 days alone and in total darkness.
Rich Alati bet he could live in a bathroom: without light, no perception of time, nor any communication. Food would be delivered, but at irregular intervals to prevent order and routine. Isolation is something many people are terrified of. Rich Alati however, being an experienced poker player, was brave enough to step into the void. Or was he?
Four days into his isolation, he started to hallucinate.
In the general sense, this ultimately suggests that humans struggle with isolation, especially for a prolonged period. The daily comforts we rely on are crucial to our wellbeing, and we would struggle to maintain a lifestyle which is completely different from what we are used to.
The above bet also included the ban of any electronic devices, alcohol or drugs. The ban of electronic devices included social media, as digital communication could be used to contact family members.
Coming back to the above experiment with Rich Alati, we see a confident man harming his wellbeing. Across the world, scientists warn of the effects of prolonged isolation.
Loneliness often leads to stress, which is the primary cause for self-harming thoughts. However, our environment also contributes to loneliness, as in some cases it can isolate us from our peers.
Scientists have concluded that isolation has the following impacts on the brain:
- A part of the brain known as the ventral striatum is less stimulated with lonely people. This is part of the brain's reward center, and displays less activity when the host has been in isolation. This suggests that the brain adapts to loneliness.
- Isolation affects cognitive function, and has an effect in the long term.
- Lonely people are commonly more anxious than that of their social counterparts.
- Isolation can lead to mental illness.
- Isolation can lead to physical illness.
University have shown that people who are socially isolated develop changes in their immune system, which leads to a condition called chronic inflammation.
- Lonely people have a tendency to release higher levels of cortisol, which, in large quantities, can lead to inflammation and disease.
Isolation: its impact on our society
Time and time again, the evidence suggests that social isolation is increasingly detrimental to our mental health. When one envisions the modern age, booming with digital communication mediums, this only compounds the problem.
In most cases, when someone is unable to maintain a relationship in the real world, they fall back to communication via social media. However, when someone has neither, they begin to almost turn on themselves. This can be seen by the suicidal thoughts experienced by the majority of people that undergo isolation for a prolonged period of time.
When we are unable to communicate, the evidence almost suggests we lose confidence in ourselves, with our self-esteem dropping, and our self-worth plummeting.
A good example of this would be the education system, where some children that find it hard to communicate are labelled as 'nerds'. This almost places a constraint on the child, encouraging them to fit into the label provided by someone else. This is actually quite harmful: in most cases, children learn by their environment. If the people in that environment essentially reject them, the person loses respect for themselves.
Social isolation comes with extreme internal conflicts. Some in prolonged periods of isolation also hear voices, and envision imaginary friends to keep them company. The simple truth is: we need people. Rejection has been proven to dispirit people. They lose self-respect, and the respect of their peers.
Isolation: the American 'justice' system
Juxtaposing the above point with the American justice system, prisoners can almost be seen as rejected by the rest of the world. This creates social pressures, which see a shocking increase in prison suicide rates. Moreover, with the above points in mind, I believe isolation is not a constructive method of encouraging prisoners to integrate back into the mainstream society. Isolation does more harm than good.
Instead of maniacal measures such as forced isolation, the justice system should encourage prisoners to socialise, giving them a handle to integrate back into the modern society. When isolated, prisoners almost forget the social expectations of the modern world. This creates internal conflict in the prisoner; they forget how to fit in. When prisons are supposedly designed to rehabilitate prisoners, one finds it hard to imagine how such a gross technique such as solitary confinement was ever approved for use.
Robert King, who was subjected to 29 years in solitary confinement, shares his experience with the world: 'To this day, I find it difficult to associate myself with my surroundings. My terrain, my geography is way off'. This reinforces the above point. We need to discourage use of solitary confinement. Scientists say it is 'damaging and unnecessary'.
Solitary confinement takes a huge toll on the host, both physically and mentally. To consolidate both points, it can be seen as a waste of a human. Solitary confinement has proved to have a permanent impact.
Isolation: the coronavirus
The strangest and, in some cases, lethal disease is affecting everyone.
In tune with the current crisis, self-isolation is more relevant than ever. Currently, billions of people are actively seeking to avoid contact with anyone else. While this will combat the disease, the government are well aware of its impact on the population.
The effects of self-distancing during the coronavirus tends to manifest itself to a greater extent within the younger population. Studies have shown that children facing isolation have experienced greater mental health difficulties, and children with behavioural problems or disorders at age 5 had an elevated risk of becoming more socially isolated at age 12.
This evidence reinforces the fact that the younger population suffer with social anxiety to a larger extent, when compared to that of their older counterparts. When said child also lives in austerity, the effects of social distancing are even more hard-hitting. To the contrary, as children's curiosity with on-line social media platforms continues to rise, social media platforms have the ability to reduce mental health issues with teenagers.
Will social media companies adapt to our modern society?
Social anxiety is also very common in the younger population. Social media, while positive, can also have a negative impact on children: filters and plastic vanity are to the detriment of children and adults alike. This raises the question of what social media platforms are doing to combat isolation, while also providing a worthwhile, collaborative and friendly environment. As social media companies continue to come under heavy scrutiny, this almost seems like a wasted opportunity to instill positivity into the younger population.
Isolation: why does it affect us?
A staggering amount of psychological research highlights the need for human contact.
However, loneliness does not necessarily mean being in contact with nobody.
For example, some people tend to place their work ahead of themselves and their family. This can lead to a feeling of loneliness, as they lack personal relationships. This cannot be compared to a business relationship. Personal relationships, in many cases, reduces the feeling of loneliness within a person, as they feel they have people who care about them.
In some cases, a person will opt for social withdrawal. This is more common with people with anxiety problems. This leads to solitude, and the symptoms range from sensory deprivation to a low stimulation of the sensory systems.
How could we help people in isolation?
We are social creatures.
If you're feeling lonely, reach out to someone. Just 5 minutes of communication can affect your physical and mental health.