Socially isolating before it was cool

By Shayne Silver-Riskin

In September of 2018, I entered social isolation because outside felt scary. COVID-19 had not yet reared its ugly head, but social anxiety had already reared its ugliness inside my head. I would often go days without leaving my dorm because even when I hurriedly paced down the hallway to the bathroom, I risked catching the stinging glare of unfamiliar eyeballs.

In September of 2018, I entered social isolation because inside felt safe. I thought the thin walls of my dorm room could block out the terror from the outside world.

I was wrong. The longer I hid from my anxiety, the more aggressively my anxiety bulldozed through my locked door. With no real chance to form a support system, I began to experience a wider range of symptoms including intense sadness, fatigue, and a diminished appetite.

Recently, many entered social isolation not because of preexisting mental illness, but because of the risk of a new respiratory illness – COVID-19. Still, even those who enter social isolation with no prior mental illness may not be immune to the mental health risks that social isolation can present. Regardless of motive, social isolation impairs the ability to form vital support systems. This is particularly true for those entering their first year of college, who do not yet belong to an established social circle and may face more challenges creating one with new Covid guidelines. Importantly, a lack of social support can brutally wound any student’s mental health.

Unfortunately, I am not the only college kid who has struggled without a support system. A recently published study revealed the strong value of a social support system for university students. According to the study, a strong social support system “acts as a protective factor against depression.” With this social support system, college students see an increased likelihood for greater academic success and a decreased likelihood of mental illness. Without this social support system, the inverse is true. For many, the coronavirus created a world that, out of necessity, discourages support systems by encouraging social distancing. This world existed perhaps most vividly in China.

When COVID-19 broke out in China, the government forced millions into social isolation. To be sure, when China locked down to prevent the growth of a COVID outbreak, it saved countless lives, but the way it did so may have sacrificed countless spirits. A study that explored the mental health risks associated with quarantining in China revealed alarming results. Those forced into quarantine reported a significantly increased likelihood to experience symptoms related to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, depression and anxiety weighed especially heavily on those quarantined in uninfected areas. For these individuals, the risk of experiencing symptoms related to depression and anxiety doubled. Of course, some mental health costs may be inevitably associated with the pandemic, but these costs should be alleviated if at all possible.

Indeed, I remember the liberating sense of joy when anxiety and depression no longer attacked my psyche with quite the same force. At that time, I exited social isolation because I felt ready. It did not happen in a day. Instead, I gradually began to build relationships with my peers, which in turn, motivated me to seek those interactions outside my room. I also began to find meaning engaging in activities that I enjoyed and benefited those around me. Together, this sense of purpose drove me outside my own mental health difficulties and into Denison’s community where I increasingly felt I belonged. Unfortunately, today’s problems bring new challenges. Still, it is possible to attenuate the dangerous mental health impact of COVID restrictions without lifting those necessary social restrictions all together.

In fact, another recent study shows that observing COVID guidelines can actually improve mental health under certain circumstances. Expecting to find the same results as the previous study conducted in China, scientists explored the mental health of those following COVID guidelines in North America. To their surprise, the researchers found that North Americans who adhered to social isolation measures that decreased the spread of coronavirus experienced lower levels of symptoms related to anxiety. To explain this, the researchers pointed to the role that pursuing a purpose plays in reducing anxiety.

The COVID outbreak revealed that we can accomplish many more tasks from the comfort of our own home than we had previously thought. It turns out that finding meaning in everyday life may be among them. Indeed, most people who practiced these guidelines believed they were working towards a larger goal of “slowing the spread”. Thus, following these guidelines instilled them with a greater sense of purpose which helped mitigate feelings stemming from poor mental health. Of course, there is a catch. The vast majority of people who practice these guidelines in North America do so out of their own volition. Denison, on the other hand, needs to strongly enforce COVID requirements, even among people less compliant, in order to prevent an outbreak. Still, coupling COVID social distancing requirements with an education on the reasoning behind these requirements may prove to be crucial. Moreover, ensuring that students can still form social support systems may be just as essential.

In March of 2020, we entered social isolation because outside felt scary. Of course, COVID-19 creates an actual threat to our safety that my false beliefs did not. Since March, millions have experienced sickness, death, and loss. Thus, social distancing now holds a beneficial and necessary purpose. Still, it is not without costs.

In March of 2020, I entered social isolation, but inside no longer felt safe. I dreaded returning to the social isolation that had tormented me and that I had worked so hard to leave behind. But admittedly, I also felt understood. Finally, I no longer felt like the only one scared of social interaction or the only one who wanted to cover their face from the rest of the world. Not only did I feel understood, I felt like I could understand. I could understand the widespread feelings of loneliness among those entering social isolation for the first time. I also could understand that reducing these mental costs probably meant instilling a sense of purpose and allowing for social support where possible. I felt pleased to see Denison seemed to be at least trying to push for both these things. But, with a vaccine potentially imminent, I hope others will understand what it is like after the pandemic.

At that point, most of us will exit social isolation because we will be ready. It will not happen in a day. But sometime following the creation of the vaccine, Covid restrictions will gradually die out. Even after the coronavirus no longer poses such a large threat, however, social anxiety may still infect the minds of many young people. I hope Denison will understand what it’s like when the mere presence of others inspires fear and panic. I hope Denison will understand how to make life more doable for people who feel isolated. Providing paths to find meaning or creating easier avenues to build social support systems not only secures the mental health of those feeling isolated for the first time. It may benefit the mental health of those feeling isolated any time. For a lot of us, the world didn’t need a pandemic to seem scary. But maybe if one good thing comes from this horrible virus, we will use this terrifying pandemic to make the world seem a little less terrifying.

Shayne Silver-Riskin is a political science major from Cleveland, Ohio. This year, he is projected to spend more on Taco Bell Black Bean Crunchwrap Supremes than on his college tuition.

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