Increasingly alone: ​​the impact of the pandemic on mental health

Forced confinement is revealing the impact of loneliness. The percentage of people living alone is increasing globally. In Scandinavian countries, more than 40% of households are inhabited by a single person. In Spain, one in four. Still far from this reality, Latin America also experiences the effects of aging and fewer children.

In Colombia, between 2005 and 2020, the number of people living alone went from 11% to 18%. In Mexico, between 1990 and 2015, single-person households increased from 5% to 10%. In Chile, in 2002 they represented 11.6% and in 2017 they reached 17.8%.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warns that loneliness has become a silent epidemic, with risks to mental and physical health in the region. "It is part of a global phenomenon, and we are especially concerned due to the pandemic”Says Dr. Renato Oliveira De Souza, PAHO's Chief of Mental Health, to DW.

The expert states that "in general, families in the region tend to be more numerous. Grandparents often take care of children, older people receive support from their relatives, and it is not so often that they are alone. But in the current situation, they cannot have the same routines as before.”.

Given the restriction of social contact with family and friends, Oliveira indicates that "this lonely situation can precipitate mental suffering and mental illness more serious. Studies show an increase in mental health symptoms and illnesses in this pandemic”.

Where there is greater loneliness and fewer ties, the pandemic has hit hardest. The PSY-COVID 19 study, conducted in 30 countries, including 12 in Latin America, seeks to identify the impact of the pandemic on mental health. It is coordinated by the faculty of psychology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

Preliminary results of this analysis of the psychosocial impact of the pandemic indicate that "perceived loneliness is one of the main variables that could explain differences when developing mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and somatization disorders, in the context of mobility restrictions due to the pandemic”, Says to DW Antoni Sanz, international coordinator of the study and professor of the stress and health research group at UAB.

Young people, the most affected

It is not about the objective loneliness of not being accompanied during confinement, but about the subjective feeling of loneliness, which can occur even when you are with other people. This loneliness "it is one of the main factors that can explain why some people, in the context of mobility restrictions, develop mental health disorders, particularly depression”Confirms Sanz.

The> most affected group has been the young population, from 16 to 30 years old. This, despite the fact that older adults are the ones who have had to comply with stricter isolation and generally live more alone. "Older people are the ones who have adapted best to the confinement situation, probably because they are the ones who have experienced the least changes in their daily lives”, Points out Sanz. Someone with reduced mobility already has his life adapted to it and the expectation of interacting with his family is more limited. In contrast, young people are more used to going out and having social contact.

Older adults, for their part, throughout their lives have faced adverse circumstances and have developed useful strategies to cope with and adapt to stress, unlike the young group.

Loneliness, suicide and women at risk

In Japan, suicide claimed more than six times more lives than the coronavirus in 2020. For the first time, after a sustained decline of more than a decade, there was a rise. Almost 21 thousand people took their lives in 2020, this is 3.7% more than in the previous year, marked by the rise in cases of women and young people. Until November 2020, more than 300 schoolchildren had taken their own lives, 30% compared to 2019. And while the cases in men decreased slightly, those in women increased by almost 15%.

In>, despite the increase in the number of people suffering from disorders that lead to suicide, such as depression, there has been a reduction in the number of self-inflicted deaths, indicates Sanz: "A probable explanation is that as people have had to spend more time indoors, they have had fewer opportunities to commit suicide attempts or that, although they have developed symptoms, not necessarily serious, stressful situations have disappeared from their lives”. However, this is not applicable to the entire population.

"Women subjected to gender-based violence have had an additional burden, to spend months living with his aggressor with no possibility of escape. We do not know at the moment if there has been an increase in this highly vulnerable group”, Warns the psychologist.

In Latin America there are still no conclusive data for 2020, "but it is an issue that worries us, because the pandemic brings risk factors, such as unemployment, loneliness and mental suffering, which from a theoretical point of view could increase suicide rates”Says Oliveira.

The> considerable incidence of suicidal thoughts in young people, people who feel excluded, and in those who do not receive social assistance”.

The work alerts that, if prevention and support measures are not taken, there could be a sustained increase in the next time. One of the concerns, according to the report, is that only 17% of those who have suicidal or self-injurious thoughts have managed to access treatment.

Strategies against loneliness

Experts agree that any initiative that helps people have the perception that someone listens to them and is interested in their emotions allows lessen the feeling of loneliness and reduces the risk of mental health problems.

Face-to-face contact is optimal, but when it is not possible, a phone call, a message or a video meeting can partially alleviate. "The extreme proliferation of videoconferencing highlights the need, even by this means, to be in contact with other people”Confirms Sanz.

That> is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction, he cautions, as evidenced by the fact that "The group most affected from the mental health point of view as a result of the restrictions is the one that has the greatest need for socialization and at the same time the greatest capacity to use new technologies: the young group. If social media were an absolute substitute for face-to-face interaction, that would not have happened”.

In the absence of ministries against loneliness, various programs seek to combat the problem. Like the telephone service You are not alone, a Jesuit initiative also attended by lay people, in Argentina. Letters against loneliness, from the AMIA, also in Argentina, and I write to you because, in Chile, they carry written messages to hospitalized or alone people. "Any activity that allows people to maintain social contacts can greatly help mental health”, Highlights Oliveira.

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