2018 was the year we all started to think about mental health. Even the government pledged to divert cash to dealing with an impending crisis. Mental illness is complex with many causes – some genetic, some environmental, some related to the stresses and strains of modern life. One of the reasons for an increase in depression is loneliness or social isolation. It affects all ages, but the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
So, what are the effects of isolation and how does loneliness impact mental health?
Humans are social and not solitary creatures. Wherever we go, we create communities based on shared values or interests. When we are isolated for so long, having no human contact with anyone, humans are known to hallucinate. We see things and hear sounds that are not there. People imagine friends or strangers keeping the company. This is most common in areas where the social conditions are unchanging, or an environment where there is little to do. Essentially, the brain is filling in the gaps when social stimulation is missing.
Increases Stress Levels
The stresses of social isolation create a situation where the person suffering from loneliness perceive their life stresses as more intense than they truly are. Perception of stress leads to anxiety. This means that the patient will experience the effects of actual stress – lack of sleep, irritability, poor concentration and memory, poor performance and exhaustion. Logical and verbal reasoning also deteriorate, so the isolated/lonely person will struggle to extract meaning from words and equally struggle to articulate their meaning. Paranoia is also a risk, which is tied in to hallucination.
Potentially Increases Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
We know that loneliness and the stresses that result from it can have long-term physical effects on the body. Researchers have believed for years that people with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia tend to become socially isolated. There are many reasons for this. Recently though, it seems that while these conditions can lead to isolation, research has suggested that loneliness can increase the risk of developing these conditions. A study carried out in the USA suggested the risk for developing dementia could increase by 40%.
Increased Risk of Suicide
There has always been a strong link between social isolation and suicidal tendencies. We’ve also tended to see this in older people who have become alone through losing contact with friends or family members passing away. But the shocking thing about the modern age is that suicide is increasing in younger people. Social isolation and loneliness, coupled with (perhaps) an over-reliance of social media, is fuelling this increase. The data now strongly suggests that social isolation is one of the strongest causes of suicide.
The only way to overcome loneliness is to find a way to have frequent contact with other people. If you find it hard to get outside, a mobility scooter is one of the best options as you can safely travel to the shops along pavements, and with a small scooter, you can enter many supermarkets and shops that already have disabled access. Seeking support groups, such as those run by Age UK is a great way to meet people who you can talk to and discuss common problems.
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