Social distancing, stay-at-home orders have not increased loneliness during pandemic
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic did not appear to increase loneliness among Americans, according to study results published in American Psychologist.
“Back in March, there was a lot of concern that social distancing measures implemented to slow the COVID-19 outbreak would increase loneliness,” Martina Luchetti, PhD, assistant professor in the department of behavioral sciences and social medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine, told Healio Psychiatry. “Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have been essential to slow the spread of the virus, but many experts voiced the very real concern about what telling people to stay home and alone would do to their feelings of social connection. Loneliness is already a well-known risk factor for poor health outcomes. In the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it may be particularly difficult to re-connect with others given the restrictions on in-person social gatherings.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, studies reported on the increased risk for morbidity and mortality associated with loneliness, with national surveys finding that 35% of adults aged 45 years or older and 43% of adults aged 60 years or older had feelings of loneliness. However, researchers have noted that loneliness is not confined to older age, since studies suggested loneliness prevalence rates are highest among young adults. Thus,
Luchetti and colleagues noted the possibility of “dangerous unintended consequences” related to increased loneliness from restrictive measures put in place to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In the current study, the investigators sought to examine this potential association by analyzing data of a nationwide sample of 1,545 U.S. adults aged 18 to 98 years on three occasions — before the outbreak (January/early February), in late March (during the president’s initial “15 days to Slow the Spread” campaign) and in late April (during the stay-at-home orders of most states).
Results showed no significant mean-level changes in loneliness across the three assessments. During the follow-up period, respondents reported perceived increased support from others (P < .01). Compared with younger age groups, older adults reported less loneliness overall but had an increase in loneliness during the outbreak’s acute phase (P < .05); however, this loneliness leveled off following the issuance of stay-at-home orders. Individuals who lived alone, as well as those with one or more chronic condition, reported feeling lonelier at baseline but did not perceive increased loneliness during the implementation of social distancing measures.
The researchers observed no large increase in loneliness and remarkable resilience in the present sample, despite some detrimental impact on vulnerable individuals.
"Even transitory changes in loneliness states might have negative consequences on individuals’ mental and physical health," Luchetti told Healio Psychiatry. "It is thus essential to know how (and for whom) loneliness changed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are going through a crisis where social distancing and isolation are essential to save lives, but this social distancing is not likely to cause loneliness if we see it in the context that we are all in this together. Humans have a need to be connected. The feeling that we are all in this together may help compensate for the loss of the ways that we typically connect with each other. However, we need to remain vigilant and continue to monitor loneliness as the social distancing measures continue. It is possible that resilience may run out at some point.”