Adam Kuczynski and Jonathan Kanter are featured in this National Geographic article about the psychological stresses of isolation.
Are we coping with social distancing? Psychologists are watching warily
The sudden confinement of millions to their homes could have serious mental health effects, and scientists are already studying this unprecedented experiment.
BY CRAIG WELCH, PUBLISHED APRIL 15, 2020
WITH MUCH OF the world facing stay-at-home orders in response to the global pandemic, hundreds of millions of people are suddenly involuntarily engaged in a previously unimaginable experiment. Virtually overnight, we’re trying to figure out how to stay in touch while alone.
Social scientists are watching with alarm, worried about the harm this will inflict on some of us: depression, substance abuse, domestic violence. Forty-five percent of Americans say the coronavirus outbreak has taken a toll on their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Cigarette and alcohol purchases are up. So, too, are gun sales.
But research underway in Seattle, Washington, where I live and where COVID-19 first surfaced in America, suggests many of us are finding our way—at least so far. Washington State’s King County, the region around my home, was one of the first places in the United States to practice social distancing, and scientists are already tracking 500 people. Residents log into their phones and laptops nightly to answer survey questions online: How much did they interact with others today? Do they feel cared for and connected? How outgoing have they been? How hard has it been to rid their thoughts of COVID-19?
Nearly a month into one of the earliest social research projects in the wake of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, “it’s telling a story of resilience and adaptation,” says Adam Kuczynski, a University of Washington graduate student who’s leading the study. “People earlier were seeing a lot of intrusive thoughts—not being able to get it out of their head. . .That’s going down.”
'I don't recognize myself.'
We can’t yet say how this period of confinement will change us. Humans need each other to survive. Excessive isolation can weaken the immune system, increase blood pressure, and may even help cancer cells spread. Over time, lack of human contact can be as risky as smoking.
Social ties, of course, don’t just protect us. Agustín Fuentes, a University of Notre Dame anthropologist, says we evolved to solve problems together. Our ancestors created stone tools using teamwork and developed glues and dyes to share insights through art. Connecting is central to what makes us human. “It helps keep us alive,” Fuentes says.
Now those bonds are being strained, but in a way the world has never seen. As harrowing and heartbreaking as this outbreak is, it’s not close to the most devastating diseases that have ravaged the world. It’s not the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 20 million to 50 million people, many of them children, just as the world was ending a horrific war. It’s not London in the 1600s, when bubonic plague cycled through every few decades and constables padlocked the houses of victims, leaving healthy inhabitants trapped inside. (Here's how some cities "flattened the curve" in 1918.)
We are isolated, and we are quarantined, but today we have Zoom and Xbox and iPhones. We see the world on bike rides or on TikTok. Cat videos are as popular as ever, as are lip-synched Broadway show tunes, the lyrics rewritten for coronavirus. If friends can’t share dinner, they’re sharing lists. Books to read. Bucket lists. To-do lists. Once-mundane treks to the supermarket are major social outings, albeit behind face masks while steering wide of everyone.
Across the street from my house a tubby, blond, eight-foot stuffed bear rests on a porch. It’s part of a social media-inspired movement to help cooped-up kids find joy. Children meander sidewalks, giggling with their parents, tallying the number of toy animals we’ve hidden on stoops and in windows—a bear hunt, if you will.
Yet much of the larger world is eerily quiet. Trafalgar Square, St. Peter’s Square, Times Square—they’re all empty, or nearly so. Seattle’s Space Needle shuttered weeks ago.
Read the entire article here.