Is Mental Health a Valid Reason to Not Socially Distance?

Even as public health experts and government authorities continue to advocate for physical distancing to minimize the spread of COVID-19, compliance appears to be diminishing. For example, mobile phone data across the United States reveals trends, beginning toward the end of April, of individuals spending more time away from their homes.

Of the many reasons why individuals may not comply with physical distancing guidelines, concerns about mental health may be most prominent. A Gallup poll conducted in April, for instance, indicated how emotional and mental health seemed to be the strongest consideration for individuals maintaining distancing, as compared with concerns about physical health and financial hardship.

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United Nations COVID-19 Response | Unsplash

The pandemic clearly is not just a crisis for physical health and the medical system; it also is an enormous challenge for mental health and the mental health system. New data released over this past weekend by Jean Twenge hints at the magnitude of these problems. In her survey conducted on April 27th, Twenge asked U. S. adults how sad or nervous they felt and compared those responses with demographically similar adults who answered the same questions in 2018. She found that roughly 70% of Americans demonstrate “moderate to severe” mental distress now, during the pandemic, a rate three times that reported in 2018. Young people show the greatest distress, a group other research has also found to be most socially isolated.

And yet, even as these problems become more evident, no major mental health organization – such as the American Psychological Association (APA) – publicly opposes physical distancing guidelines. Instead, mental health and behavioral experts point to ways to maintain distancing while at the same time attending to individuals’ mental health.

For example, the American Psychological Association recently issued this summary of major mental health concerns particularly relevant during the pandemic, along with resources for support and help, such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800.273.8255). APA also summarized 7 crucial research findings that can help people deal with COVID-19, including the search for control and the importance of effective coping. Psychological scientists such as Dacher Keltner have been discussing research-supported happiness practices to nurture resilience during this time of distancing, such as gratitude practices and experiencing “mini-burts” of awe. Parenting experts such as Christine Carter have been similarly discussing science-backed parenting practices to help our kids. Finally, Springtide Research Institute encourages adults to reach out to young people, in particular, as 80% report feeling better when a trusted adult outside their household does so.

The message from major mental health organizations and leading experts is clear: although this is an extremely challenging time, often requiring us to act in ways contrary to many of our natural inclinations and previous habits, there are resources and strategies that help. Flexibility and creativity will go a long way toward allowing for both public health and mental health as we collectively move into an uncertain future.

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