Self isolation during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic can make maintaining essential social connections difficult for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Dr Manik Ahuja, an assistant professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Health Services Management and Policy, said there are healthy ways to cope with the loneliness that might come from staying at home. His research area includes risk factors for addiction and the epidemiology of substance use and mental health disorders.

Ahuja offers answers to the following questions:

What should Tennesseans know about social isolation and mental health issues?

Loneliness and social isolation impact people of all ages. Research has found that social connectedness is critical for good physical and mental health. Having strong social connections and social networks are protective factors for mental health problems.

These social networks may consist of everything from visiting friends, attending church, going out to a restaurant with friends or family, going to veterans centers, community centers, and other places of congregation. For others, going to work and having an opportunity to see colleagues, co-workers also brings social benefit. Adolescents also form social connections with their classmates, their friends from organized sports teams and from other extra-curricular activities.

Those over the age of 65 are highly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. Factors including less physical mobility, less mobility, cognitive decline and chronic health issues put them at an elevated risk. Outlets such as senior centers, veterans homes and other organizations have eased the burden for many. Without these outlets, it has become difficult for the elderly to cope and puts them at increased risk.

Community gatherings have been an outlet for many to avoid feeling alone and not connected to others. These types of organizations have provided social support, social networks, lifelong friendships, and community among residents of this region. Residents of the community have built strong social networks and found support to alleviate stress associated with loneliness.

The current COVID-19 crisis puts even more at risk for problems related to depression, anxiety, and increased levels of suicidal thoughts and behavior. Those living in rural/remote areas are highly vulnerable, and even prior to COVID-19 they were faced with social isolation. However, previously to cope with this, individuals were able to go to the store, attend gatherings, and other outlets of social connectedness. However, the current situation removes these outlets, in an already challenging situation.

How do stay-at-home orders impact those struggling with substance abuse? 

For example, one may engage in “dry” activities, such as going to the gym, parks, playing bingo, going for walks with large groups, or attending church. As none of these are an option during the pandemic, this puts those who previously suffered from addiction at increased risk for relapse.

Those who are currently suffering from a substance use problem, they may increase their frequency and quantity of alcohol use, drug use and the use of non-medical prescription drugs. For example, one who may a “regular drinker” who consumes two to three glasses of alcohol, such as beer or wine in a day, may be at risk for binge drinking (five or more drinks for men in a setting, or four or more drinks for women).

Loneliness and social isolation can result in coping strategies that involve the use of alcohol, illicit drugs and non-medical prescription drugs to cope. Turning to the comfort of substance use has become a way for individuals to avoid being confronted with their problems of feeling unloved, rejected, alone and isolated. Substance use and misuse has become a way to avoid pain, and deliver a false sense of security.

What should people dealing with these issues do to cope during these times?

The COVID-19 situation has led many to feel stressed, anxious in a period of uncertainty. As there are a lot of unknowns including how long this will last, how severe this will be and when can things be “normal” again. All of these uncertainties may lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety in many.

The good news is that as we go into spring, the outdoors is a positive way to cope. With social distancing in place — staying at least 6 feet from the nearest person — one can go on walks, spend time outdoors and forming a routine of relaxation. While many have busy schedules, take one hour a day and dedicate it for yourself.

Take a break from watching the news, reading or listening to news stories for at least a few hours a day. Watch something that you enjoy such as an old television show, movie, or read a book that you enjoy.

It is also recommended that people use this time to reconnect with old friends, classmates, loved ones and sharing warmth with others through telephone or through virtual mechanisms.

What can their families and friends do to help them during this pandemic?

We must make sincere efforts to reach out to our friends, colleagues and neighbors in the community. Making a phone call, or setting up a virtual call to friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, former classmates and others can make a significant difference in one’s life. If we do our part to alleviate the pain others face through social isolation and loneliness, we will come out stronger and healthier as a region.

For those who are not technological, a phone call — even for 5 minutes a day on a regular basis — may comfort and possibly decrease their risk of feeling lonely or socially isolated.

Individuals from this region have been unselfish through this crisis. Taking that extra step, and reaching out to others, engaging in some laughter, and showing some level of caring can help save many lives.