Increasingly alone: the impact of the pandemic on mental health

The pandemic imposed forced isolation and brought with it an increase in mental health problems. In Japan, faced with a rise in suicides, the government created a ministry of loneliness. What is happening in Latin America?

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 is also experiencing the effects of aging and fewer children.

In Colombia, between 2005 and 2020, the number of people living alone rose 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 about it because of the pandemic,” Dr. Renato Oliveira De Souza, head of Mental Health at PAHO, told DW.

The expert notes that “in general in the region, families tend to be larger. Grandparents often take care of the children, the elderly receive support from their relatives and it is not so common for them to be alone. But in the current situation, they can’t have the same routines as before.”

Given the restriction of social contact with family and friends, Oliveira points out that “this situation of loneliness can precipitate mental suffering and more serious mental illnesses. There are studies that 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 Latin American countries, 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 in the development of mental health symptoms, such as anxiety disorders, depression and somatization, in the context of mobility restrictions due to the pandemic,” Antoni Sanz, international coordinator of the study and professor of the stress and health research group at the UAB, told DW.

Young people, the most affected
It is not the objective loneliness of not being accompanied during confinement, but the subjective feeling of loneliness, which can occur even when being with other people. This loneliness “is one of the main factors that may explain why some people, in the context of mobility restrictions, develop mental health disorders, particularly depression,” confirms Sanz.

The study shows that the most affected group has been the young population, from 16 to 30 years of age. 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 situation of confinement, probably because they are the ones who have experienced the least changes in their daily lives,” Sanz points out. Someone with reduced mobility already has their life adapted to it and the expectation of interacting with their family is more limited. In contrast, young people are more accustomed to going out and having social contact.

Older adults, on the other hand, throughout their lives have faced adverse circumstances and have developed useful strategies for coping and adapting to stress, unlike the younger group.

Loneliness, suicide and women at risk
In Japan, suicide claimed more than six times as many lives as the coronavirus in 2020. For the first time, after a steady decline of more than a decade, a rise was recorded. Nearly 21,000 people took their own lives in 2020, 3.7% more than in the previous year, marked by a rise in cases among women and young people. As of November 2020, more than 300 schoolchildren had taken their own lives, up 30% from 2019. And while male cases decreased slightly, female cases increased by almost 15%.

In Japan, the suicide rate has risen again.


In Spain, 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, says Sanz: “One likely 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 symptomatology, not necessarily serious, stressful situations have disappeared from their lives”. However, this does not apply to the entire population.

“Women subjected to gender violence have had an additional burden, as they have been living for months with their 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 is 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”, Oliveira points out.

The study “Social Thermometer”, published by CIPER, shows that the number of suicides in 2020 in Chile is the lowest in the last two decades. However, it registers “a considerable incidence of suicidal thoughts in young people, people who feel excluded, and in those who do not receive social help”.

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

Strategies against loneliness
Experts agree that any initiative that helps people to have the perception that someone is listening to them and is interested in their emotions helps to reduce 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.

Virtual communication is not enough.

It is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction, he warns, as demonstrated by the fact that “the group most affected from a 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 networks were an absolute substitute for face-to-face interaction, this would not have happened”.

In the absence of ministries against loneliness, a number of programs seek to combat the problem. Such as the telephone service No estás solo, a Jesuit initiative also run by lay people in Argentina. AMIA’s Cartas contra la soledad (Letters against loneliness), also in Argentina, and Te escribo porque (I write to you because), in Chile, carry written messages to hospitalized or lonely people. “Any activity that allows people to maintain social contacts can be a great help to mental health,” Oliveira points out.

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