Social isolation has long been recognised as a cause of depression and other mental illnesses. There is increasing awareness of the impact of it on physical health as well. In my view the mind-body dualism is only of academic significance. Impact on health will include physical and mental health parameters as they are a unitary phenomenon. We also have to distinguish the differential impact of social isolation in the short term and in long term. Considering the impact on health of social isolation in the short term, we can think of the recent Covid scenario. As lockdowns were imposed across the world, in a short span of time, people were left in situations with varying degrees of isolation.
We all need social contact to sustain ourselves emotionally, the degree of need is variable, depending on the personality style of the individual. Some of us are literally social animals and can only thrive in very active social interactions and some are content with minimal contact. Due to the artificially and acutely enforced restrictions on socialising in the lockdown phase there was a parallel mental health pandemic that evolved. There was a tsunami of mental distress manifesting in the form of depression and anxiety. In our services we saw a huge increase in the number of people seeking our services via our helpline and online services of course. The increase in the number of seekers was unparalleled. The nature of distress ranged from persistent low mood, loss of energy and enthusiasm to decline in basic functioning like loss of appetite and sleep disturbnces.There was also a host of issues with fear and anxiety particularly health anxiety which was not helped by numerous WhatsApp forwards and fake news in social media. The lockdown phase also unmasked long term mental health issues and relationship problems.
Thinking about long term impact of social isolation and loneliness, there are several large scale studies that have conclusively demonstrated the massive impact on mental and physical health. Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need-crucial to both well-being and survival. There is evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life. Research really shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity.Unchecked,social isolation can double the risk of early death.