Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Mental Health in the Times of a Pandemic

During the Covid-19 outbreak, social distancing poses bigger problems than many recognize for people with mental health concerns.

Apr 4, 2020

As I write this, I am staring at the wall in my university dorm. While I recognize and appreciate the importance of policies regarding social distancing and staying at home, I cannot hide how difficult this involuntary, extended solitude is for somebody like me, who has spent many months using social isolation as a coping mechanism and an escape from addressing her feelings and issues. I have come to associate spending extended periods of time in my dorm with a time I prefer not to think about. This is part of why I believe the term “social distancing” implies the wrong approach to handling mental health amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
Advocacy for so-called social distancing has increased in the last few weeks, with currently nearly four million Instagram posts featuring #socialdistancing. This term is used to refer to measures implemented to prevent further spread of Covid-19, which include maintaining a distance of two meters from people when out in public and avoiding crowded places as much as possible. On March. 20, during a press briefing, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organisation condoned the usage of the phrase “physical distancing” in lieu of social distancing and emphasized that, while obeying cautionary measures is vital in preventing the spread of Covid-19, it does not mean that [“socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family”] (
Between March. 20 and March. 25, YoungMinds, a mental health charity in the United Kingdom, conducted a survey on 2,111 youths with prior mental health problems. The survey aimed to obtain a snapshot of mental health challenges that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus poses for youth, especially in relation to self-isolation and school closures. The opinion that the pandemic made their mental health either “a bit worse” or “much worse” was shared by 83 percent of the participants. Some of the common worries voiced by the youth participating in the survey included the fear of contracting and passing the virus onto one’s family, as well as concerns regarding losing touch with friends or falling behind on academic work. When asked about main concerns for the coming weeks or potentially months of the pandemic, students indicated that they feared isolation and loneliness, resulting in a further deterioration of their mental health.
The above survey was conducted on a limited sample of youth in the United Kingdom but it tackles a widespread issue. The most obvious stressors to children and young adults in affected countries around the world include abnormal and unfamiliar circumstances — such as school closures and lockdowns, quarantines and uncertainty regarding the future.
The first step to combating the negative mental health outcomes caused by the pandemic is recognizing that they exist. It is easy to think that one’s concerns are illegitimate or unjustified when the person in question is in the comfort of their home, but this does not deem one’s concerns or anxieties invalid. The lack of a usual structure due to school and university closures can cause distress around one’s grades and academic future. Isolation can also lead people with a history of mental health issues to have feelings of hopelessness and emptiness. These emotions and experiences are just as valid now as they have been in the past.
For this crisis, an important distinction exists. While we must maintain a physical distance and in many cases even be quarantined, we must not allow the virus to make it difficult to spend in-person time with loved ones and friends. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in times of universal uncertainty and distress, social interactions are more important than ever.
Some valuable mental health resources can also be found on the website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Morgane Motlik is a staff writer. Email her at
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