The Unbearable Loneliness of the COVID Crisis

The Unbearable Loneliness of the COVID Crisis
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Before the rise of COVID-19, scores of articles and reports surfaced about our loneliness epidemic. Now we have a window into Americans’ mental health, loneliness, and feelings of isolation. 

It’s not a pretty picture.

New data collected during the height of the lockdowns through the AEI COVID-19 and American Life Survey indicate that overall, more than a third (36%) of Americans report feeling lonely or isolated. Overall, women (39%) are more likely to report these feelings than men (34%). Thirty-five percent of adults living without children under 18 but not living alone report feeling lonely or isolated, along with 34% of those who live alone. And the picture for parents is even more bleak. 

When children younger than 18 are in the household, 42% of parents report feeling lonely or isolated a few times a week or more. And parents are generally struggling with feelings of depression: 35% of fathers and more than half (51%) of mothers say they have felt depressed at least a few times over the past week. Exactly half of parents report having cried at least once within the past week due to feelings of loneliness or isolation.

In two-parent households, 36% of fathers and 49% of mothers report feeling lonely or isolated regularly, and unsurprisingly, single parents are even more likely than parents in two-parent households to experience loneliness or isolation (54% vs. 38%). Parents of younger children –– who have less time to themselves than any other group –– report feelings of loneliness or isolation at an even higher rate than parents of older children (roughly 45% of parents with children between 6 and 17 versus a whopping 58% of parents of children under five).

These findings stand in sharp contrast to results from a previous AEI survey which also captured feelings of isolation. Just under two years ago, 33% of those who lived with others (whether parents or not) experienced loneliness or isolation, and only a slightly higher proportion of those who lived alone reported feeling lonely (37%).

So what should we do to feel less lonely? Psychologists have been encouraging us to use video conferencing technology (such as Zoom and FaceTime) to connect with friends and family. But while 32% of people who say they don’t use video conferencing platforms describe themselves as feeling lonely or isolated during the pandemic, paradoxically, 41% of those who say they connect with others on these virtual platforms report feelings of loneliness or isolation; perhaps because these virtual gatherings remind us of what we’re missing and the connections that have attenuated.

It is unsurprising that the pandemic’s monumental disruption to life as we knew it has had negative psychological effects –– in particular, the abrupt and precipitous decrease in social and physical contact. A headline back in May declared, “Many Americans haven't seen or touched another person in 3 months because of COVID-19.” Now it’s been six months. In a recently released CDC study of adult mental health during the pandemic, more than 40% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition related to the pandemic.

Loneliness is stressful. And a lack of physical contact can cause stress, sleep disturbances, and even immune issues. Yet, as we’ve noted, those who common sense tells us should be the least likely to be suffering from touch deprivation (parents of young children) are among the loneliest of all. Add to that the additional stressors on couples, and a marriage that was in trouble before the pandemic might be hanging by a thread now. Spouses might be asking themselves how much longer they can tolerate staying at home.

Young adults might be asking themselves this question, too. Those in the age group now known as “Zoomers” (Gen-Z) seem to be faring worst of all. Almost 63% of 18 to 24-year-olds report having symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, almost two thirds (74.9%) report at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom, and more than a quarter (25.5%) even say that they seriously considered suicide in the past month. Data from the AEI study confirm that those in Gen Z report the highest levels of loneliness or isolation among any cohort –– far greater than their Gen X parents or Boomer grandparents.

Even before the pandemic, we worried about older Americans loneliness and isolation. Given that they are among those at greatest risk from the virus, we are willing to go to great lengths to protect them. Now American families and young adults are at risk, too. But not from the virus. Their risk is from our efforts to avoid it.

To what lengths are we willing to go to protect them?

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He contributes regularly to the LA Times, the Dispatch, Real Clear Policy and Inside Higher Ed.

Pamela Paresky is a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago where she researches academic innovation at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and has contributed to various outlets including The Guardian, Politico, and the New York Times.


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