The last two years have created unprecedented conditions for countless people around the globe due to the Covid pandemic. Among other serious effects, the pandemic, and resulting limitations imposed on the general populace in attempts to control it, created huge amounts of isolation and disconnection for millions of people. But this reality has already been steadily increasing for huge portions of the world’s population even before the occurrence of Covid.
Other factors, including a prolific increase over the past decade of social media usage and personal devices that allow almost constant access to those platforms, have fundamentally changed some of the ways we meet basic human needs (including connection with others). Without compensating in other ways to make sure those needs are met, serious ramifications can occur, including mental health problems.
What is mental health?
Mental health can refer to a broad family of components that make up one’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Various factors impact our mental health. These include innate biological makeup, past experiences or trauma, current circumstances, physical health, and general life outlook. Mental illnesses can take a variety of forms including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other states that can become debilitative or dangerous if not treated.
One of the best ways to avoid mental illness is to proactively invest in your mental health and wellbeing before problems develop, and to make yourself aware of mental health warning signs so that you can engage in early action for both yourself and those around you if mental instability or difficulty presents itself.
Factors that contribute to mental health problems
Some of the most significant factors that can cause or contribute to mental health problems include the following:
- Unhealthy sleep patterns
- Disconnection or social isolation
- Lack of physical activity or time outdoors
- Significant stress or difficulty in everyday life
- Traumatic events or experiences
These experiences can have a compounding effect on each other – i.e. when more than one are present at a given time, it’s more likely that mental health problems could develop.
Social isolation and cognitive health
Two large-scale trends have contributed to a societal environment in which huge portions of the population experience significantly more social isolation than in other periods in history. Social isolation refers to a “lack of social connections,” and can manifest for different individuals differently.
Social isolation can be imposed by external situations and circumstances, which characterizes countless persons’ experiences during the COVID-19 epidemic. Experiencing social isolation, especially in enduring cases (e.g. the lockdowns and extended periods of social restriction over the past 1-2 years), can have severe and lasting effects on cognitive health and can lead to mental health problems.
Social media: a mixed bag
Alongside the more recent realities imposed by Covid, social media usage trends over the past decade provide another telling clue as to why mental health problems might be increasing. While social media can provide a channel to achieve social connection even in periods of physical isolation (for example, how video chat platforms like Zoom or Facebook Messenger allowed family members, friends, and social gatherings to connect virtually during times when physical proximity was impossible or disallowed), large amounts of daily social media usage (for instance, more than two hours a day in this study) can contribute to enduring social isolation and loneliness.
One reason for this could be a lack of face-to-face interaction, often mitigated for people who spend more time engaging with social media platforms and correspondingly have less bandwidth for engaging in real-life interaction. While there is still much to learn about social media’s relationship to mental health, scientific evidence points to a significant correlation between social media engagement and increased risk for social isolation.
As vaccination rates increase and the probability that Covid becomes one of many common diseases we receive standard immunisations to prevent seems more attainable, the experience of enforced lockdowns and social separation will hopefully become a thing of the past, or at least much less restrictive and widespread.
However, today’s heightened risks of social isolation will remain. It’s important to take stock of the ways you connect socially with people around you, and to intentionally invest time in social connections of many kinds and types in order to proactively contribute to your mental health.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interest in mental health and well-being.