Separated from family, friends and colleagues; restricted in our movements, changing work environments and (at times) all but confined to our homes – COVID-19, and the associated lockdowns, have meant sudden and significant changes in the way many of us live our lives.
While some saw lockdown as an opportunity to pause, reflect, connect and even embrace new skills, this was certainly not the case for all New Zealanders.
For many, the isolation associated with lockdown left them feeling lonely, vulnerable and fearful; separated from crucial support networks, at a time when they were needed most. Even as New Zealand has returned to lower alert levels, many have been left with lasting concerns about the future – for themselves, their families, and the world as they knew it – which may be proving difficult to shake.
As an indication of the sheer scale of the issue, a quick Google Scholar search uncovers 26,900 academic articles from this year alone on the topics of loneliness and isolation.
It’s not always obvious when someone is struggling, or what you can do to best support those around you. Here are some top signs to look out for, and tips to manage loneliness and isolation from nib’s expert partner, Lifeline’s Senior Clinical Advisor, Dr Fiona Pienaar.
What does Lifeline’s data tell us about loneliness and isolation?
Prior to COVID-19, Lifeline’s busiest days would see as many as 500 calls and 1200 text contacts. These figures grew by 25% during the nationwide lockdown from March to May 2020 – and despite dropping slightly in July, the return to Levels 2 and 3 in August saw the numbers pick up once again.
Calls relating to loneliness and isolation are consistently the top presenting issue among Lifeline users, and have increased by more than 40% over the last 12 months - peaking in August 2020, and remaining consistent in September through October.
Among other stressors, lockdown also has the potential to exacerbate existing relationship issues, financial uncertainly, job insecurity, pre-lockdown mental health challenges, and the availability of support from other services. These challenges are not likely to just disappear once lockdown ends.
While the increase in calls and texts is a reflection of the challenges in society, the positive side of all of this is that people are reaching out for support. It’s important not to underestimate the power of a conversation with an empathetic listener - and if you’re concerned about someone else, that listener could be you.
What are the signs someone may be struggling with loneliness and isolation?
Unlike depression or anxiety, loneliness and isolation are not diagnosable mental illnesses, but, left unattended, can contribute to poor mental and physical health. Changes to look out for, in yourself and others, include:
struggling to get out of bed in the morning
low or fluctuating moods
racing thoughts that you have difficulty controlling
feeling constantly worried or fearful
a struggle with, or avoidance of social connections
withdrawal from relationships, work or activities that you used to enjoy
thoughts that might indicate suicide ideation, such as, ‘My life isn’t worth living any more’, or ‘I don’t want to be here anymore’
While it’s natural to experience a number of these at some point in time, if you notice your thoughts and feelings are starting to become overwhelming; impacting on your ability to engage in life, work and relationships; or that the number, frequency and intensity of your struggles are increasing, it’s time to reach out for help. Similarly, if you’ve recognised these behaviours in others, check in and let them know you care – it can make the world of difference.
Tips to support ourselves:
Maintain balance between work, play, family-time and socialising
Avoid over-consumption of the news and social media
Get sufficient sleep
Eat well, and avoid alcohol and other drugs
Focus on your breathing. Taking deep breaths (in for 4, hold for 7, out for 7), is a great trick to calm you down quickly
Stay active each day. Get your heart rate up with a brisk walk, run or bike ride; or relax with stretches, yoga or Pilates.
Reach out to someone you feel comfortable talking to. Try a helpline; ask your employer if they provide an EAP service, or speak to your GP for more information:
a. Check out Lifeline, the Mental Health Foundation or Health Navigator for more information on where to access support.
Tips to support others:
If you suspect someone is struggling, make sure to check in on them, or ask someone else to. Sometimes just reaching out for a chat, or to catch up over coffee can make an immediate positive difference.
Remember, people can feel lonely and isolated even when surrounded by family, friends and colleagues.
Listen and respond with empathy.
Even though we’re in this together, we will each be experiencing and processing the impact of COVID-19 in our own unique way – and it’s completely normal to feel like you might need support right now. Stay mindful of your mental health and wellbeing and stay connected with one another.
Dr Fiona Pienaar is an educator, counsellor, executive coach and a frequent presenter and media commentator on mental health. She works as an advisor for Lifeline Aotearoa and is a clinical lead and consultant to various mental health organisations both here in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom.