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SciLine Briefing Explores Mental Health, Social Isolation and COVID-19

Three headshots of women in a row
SciLine panelists Roxane Cohen Silver, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Robin Gurwitch examine mental health and coping reactions of people now living at a physical distance from their social networks. | Courtesy of panelists

Three experts shared the science behind the responses needed to address anxiety, stress and fear being felt by adults, teens and children as the places they call home are now necessarily locations of social distancing and isolation to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The discussion came during an online media briefing held by SciLine, a free service based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that connects journalists with scientists who provide credible information, context and research-based evidence to inform in-depth, deadline news coverage.

The “Social Isolation, Mental Health, and COVID-19” media briefing, held on March 30 and moderated by Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, featured Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University, and Robin Gurwitch, a clinical psychologist and professor at Duke University.

The experts explored psychological and physical reactions to stress, the health effects of physical and social connection and isolation and the impact of trauma and disasters on children as they outlined useful and beneficial coping mechanisms.

Beyond examining the range of reactions being experienced across the country as well as the impact on children and teens, the speakers fielded media questions on topics ranging from how children are being affected by social distancing; how those prone to mental health problems can be protected; whether the pandemic may lead to anything positive; how social distancing will change interpersonal relationships in time; to what signs of stress parents of elementary-school children may need to look out for.

School children across the U.S. are using online platforms to do school work at home in response to closed schools due to social isolation | Fabio Principe/Adobe Stock

Gurwitch took on the elementary school children question, saying it is common for such children to become irritable, whiny, defiant, and demonstrate more limited attention and concentration abilities when participating in online classes that are now replacing many closed schools. “Recognize that children may have more difficulty, not just figuring out the platform, but also learning the new information and being able to attend to it as well,” she said, urging parents to be more patient and to deliver “positive praise” that can make children feel better and repeat applauded behaviors.

In responding to whether the COVID-19 pandemic will produce any welcome outcomes, Silver pointed to research that has shown some “individuals often find meaning in something that is challenging. They learn strengths about themselves that they didn't realize previously. They connected with individuals who they hadn't spoken to for some time.”

Joining the response, Holt-Lunstad noted the emergence of “potential positives” in an expanding “recognition of the importance of our relationships,” an awareness that may alter the often cited “too busy” explanation used to account for someone’s limited social activities.

“What we’re going through is awful,” said Holt-Lunstad. “But it’s something that is bringing communities together. We can potentially see more solidarity as communities and society are making time to reach out to others, having that time to have a long conversation on a call, looking out for those in our communities who are more vulnerable.”

In response to questions related to how and if increased stress leads to more severe and persistent mental health problems, Silver said earlier research has led some individuals impacted by other crises to adopt unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse. If COVID-19 requires current responses now being used to deal with the pandemic to be extended for six months or more, she said, then the responses being untaken by the mental health community may need to be addressed anew.

For now, mental health providers have put in place an array of new outreach methods. “They’re coping with the ways in which they are providing services to their clients and to their patients,” Silver said.

Gurwitch added that mental health clinicians have set up online and texting services to continue treatments for patients and underscored that emergency hotlines also are available across the country to respond to severe distress, thoughts about suicide or other mental health issues.

In closing remarks, the speakers called on the public to accept a new normal even if it is one that stirs anxiety, uncertainty and ambiguity and remains challenging to cope with. “It’s important that we don’t in any way minimize this … important that we’re honest with our communities and that we make clear that we are all in this together and that we will get through this,” said Silver.

Distress being felt by many due to social distancing “is a normal response” said Holt-Lunstad, adding that it can be mitigated if people remain “socially connected while at a physical distance.”

Gurwitch emphasized the importance of keeping such connections with family and friends open, giving children and their parents virtual opportunities to see friends. All of this, will give families opportunities to reflect on “How are we making meaning out of this new event to move us forward into the future?” 

[Associated image: Coolpicture/Adobe Stock]