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Depressed Man During Covid

The Unintended Consequences of Social Distancing

Sept. 2, 2020
Staying at home isn’t always the safest place to be.

Human beings are social creatures. We rely on each other not only for the goods and services we need for the physical basics of food, shelter and clothing, but also for the emotional basics we need, such as compassion, understanding, friendship and love. As the weeks of lockdown and self-quarantining from the COVID-19 virus have extended into months, and as the pandemic hits its half-year mark this month with no end in sight, it’s becoming evident that while we’ve made great strides in protecting people from a deadly virus, we’ve inadvertently exposed far too many people to other unhealthy environments. And it’s going to take a concerted effort—with health and safety professionals at the forefront of that effort—to find a way to fix the damage.

Scott Geller, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Applied Behavior Systems, has suggested that the term “social distancing” is inappropriate since the word “social” reflects an interpersonal connection or companionship a person experiences with one or more individuals. Physical distancing, Geller says, would be more appropriate. I understand the semantics behind Geller’s point (which he discusses at length in his article, “The Power of Words”), but based on some disturbing statistics, “social distancing” seems to be exactly the right way to describe the impact COVID-19 is having on people, since keeping oneself isolated from other people is very much the reason why so many are feeling disconnected, alone and helpless right now.

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression are tough enough to cope with when the world seems to be somewhat predictable, but when a pandemic forces people to stay indoors—separated from the support systems that help sustain them—then it becomes an almost unendurable situation. And the longer the virus lingers on and people are asked to go without the very things that give their lives purpose—whether it’s attending a worship service, a group therapy session or a family reunion—the more impactful will be the effects.

Consider this chilling observation made by Drs. Betty Pfefferbaum and Carol North in a recent edition of The New England Journal of Medicine (August 6, 2020): “Uncertain prognoses, looming severe shortages of resources for testing and treatment and for protecting responders and healthcare providers from infection, imposition of unfamiliar public health measures that infringe on personal freedoms, large and growing financial losses, and conflicting messages from authorities are among the major stressors that undoubtedly will contribute to widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness associated with COVID-19.”

And don’t expect an immediate return to normalcy once the pandemic ends. As Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told The Guardian, “When life finally returns to normal, the following year will not be a good one for mental health.” According to NAMI, half of the adult population with mental illness were not receiving treatment even before the virus struck, and the organization has seen a 65% increase in calls to its helpline during the pandemic. The great fear among healthcare professionals is that the suicide rate, which was already near crisis levels even before the pandemic, will accelerate the longer that social distancing is in effect. The frightening spike in alcohol and drug abuse throughout the pandemic should be a wakeup call to all safety managers that work-from-home situations aren’t always going to go well. It’s vital that managers keep in touch with their employees, especially during times of work-from-home or staggered shifts, and make sure they know about the resources available to them if they need them.

One positive development that’s resulted in recent days is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved the use of 988 as a new, nationwide, 3-digit phone number. Anyone in crisis will be able to call 988 and connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors. The rules require all phone service providers to direct all 988 calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, 2022.

That’s good news, but full implementation of 988 is still two years in the future, so as this pandemic continues on, it’s incumbent on all EHS professionals to ensure their employees, wherever they might be working, are kept out of harm’s way—whether that harm is external or internal. Staying home, after all, isn’t always safe.

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