Social Isolation and Mental Illness
By Elise Stobbe, Brain Blogger
Think about what it would be like to spend most of your time alone because being around other people is just too difficult. You feel that others are judging you for your mental illness, and so you are scared to face the world. You withdraw to avoid this stigmatization. This social withdrawal is emotionally very costly. But this is a two-way street — the mentally ill withdraw from society–society withdraws from them.
An Australian survey reported that two-thirds of people affected by a mental illness feel lonely “often” or “all of the time”. The research says in contrast, just 10 per cent of the general population reported feelings of loneliness. (1)
Social relationships are important for anyone in maintaining health, but for the mentally ill it is especially important. People with mental illness value contact with family. But families may be unwilling to interact with their mentally ill family member. Social isolation is also sometimes due to the unwillingness of others to befriend the mentally ill. The public may avoid them altogether. The stigma associated with mental illness creates huge barriers to socialization.
People with severe mental illness are probably the most isolated social group of all. They are judged, disrespected and made into pariahs. They fear rejection from others, who may be afraid of the mentally ill, so the mentally ill person may feel overwhelmed by the thought of attempting to form new friendships. Just avoiding any contact is often the choice. Or, they may make a great effort to conceal their condition from others, which results in additional stress from worrying about their true condition being discovered.
It is sometimes the case that the severely mentally ill person becomes homeless. This in itself is isolating, and they then must suffer the double stigmatization of being homeless as well as mentally ill.
Another reason the person with mental illness may experience social isolation is the nature of their mental illness. Social phobias like agoraphobia, or severe anxiety or depression often cause the suffering person to be afraid to venture out into society.
When anyone, mentally ill or not, does not have enough social contact, it affects them mentally and even physically. Loneliness creates stress, taking a toll on health. Other things affected can be the ability to learn and memory function. High blood pressure is also seen. It can be the trigger of depression and alcoholism. (2) Imagine the consequences, then, if you are already depressed or have other mental illnesses? Loneliness can make you worse. Loneliness and loss of self-worth lead many mentally ill to believe that they are useless, and so they live with a sense of hopelessness and low self-esteem.
Social isolation is both a cause and an effect of mental distress. When the person isolates more, they face more mental distress. With more mental distress, they want to isolate. This vicious cycle relegates many people with severe mental illness to a life of social segregation and isolation.
Many people with severe psychiatric disabilities say that the stigma associated with their illness is as distressing as the symptoms themselves. This stigmatization not only prevents them from interacting with others, but may prevent them from seeking treatment, which in turn exposes them to a greater risk of suicide.
Too often the public does not understand the challenges of the mentally ill and doesn’t want to try. It is therefore necessary to confront biased social attitudes in order to reduce the discrimination and stigma of people who are living with mental illness.
1. Mentally Ill ‘neglected by communities’. (05/08/2002). Yahoo. AU.
2. Psychology Today. The Dangers of Loneliness. Morano, Hara Estroff. (Aug. 21, 2033).