Loneliness during COVID-19: How to help yourself, loved ones

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic can be overwhelming. Many often say we’re all in this together. But some people are feeling left out and forgotten. So 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke with experts about how you can help your loved ones struggling through these times.

When you consider the term loneliness, who comes to mind? If you guessed older adults, mental health experts say you’re right, in part. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, they say this is affecting people of all ages.

Executive Director of Mental Health Minnesota, Shannah Mulvihill, said, "We can’t acknowledge enough that this is impacting all of us."

"I think that after we are sort of through the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that we are going to see a mental health pandemic," added Dr. Mary Jo Kreitzer, Director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Dr. Kreitzer said she’s seen an increase in loneliness during the pandemic and explained it’s much different from solitude.

"They can be in solitude and have a deep sense of peace and well-being," she said.

Mulvihill said human beings are meant to be social, even though some are fine with solitude.

"[People who embrace solitude] are more likely able to adapt to current circumstances related to social distancing, given that it is not outside the normal realm of how they live. However, for those who generally choose to be more social, a sudden need to be physically distant from others has led to feelings of emotional distance, loneliness and isolation," Mulvihill said.

Others, Mulvihill said, are struggling.

"And the way that they combat feelings of stress or anxiety or loneliness is to get out there and do things," Mulvihill said.

It’s something that hasn’t been easy or possible with social distancing requirements and the ‘stay at home’ executive order when people are having to adapt to an existence they didn’t choose.

Dr. Kreitzer said, "They are alone, and they are isolated, and it’s not by choice … Even if we find ways to have social connection with people, it’s actually not quite the same when we do it through technology."

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"The pandemic is exacerbating loneliness and is hitting people who’ve never experienced mental health issues before," Dr. Kreitzer added.

In addition, Mulvihill said, "This is an unprecedented time … None of us have been through something like this before, and so we’re all trying to navigate it the very best we can, but we all have our points where we need some extra help."

To support loved ones, whether they’re 25 or 85 years old, Mulvihill suggested to simply reach out.

"Reach out often, not just via text, but also through phone and video chat if possible. If you can, think about setting a regular time to check in with them each day, or during one call, decide what time you’ll talk the next day," said Mulvihill. "Having something to look forward to can help minimize feelings of loneliness and isolation."

"Sometimes for the other person, it’s just hearing your voice," Dr. Kreitzer said.

Mulvihill suggested, "If there’s an activity that you often do together, be creative and see if there’s any way to do that now, either in person while practicing safe social distancing, or via video chat. For example: used to cooking a weekly meal together? Have a contest for who can make the most creative meal while online together."

Dr. Kreitzer suggested preparing things to discuss and acknowledge what they’re experiencing.

"Really reflect back, I hear you, I appreciate how hard this is," she said.

"Help them to identify things they can do while they’re alone, and take any action you can to help them make it happen, such as order a book for them on Amazon and have it delivered to them, help them find a free or low-cost online class to take on an interest they have," Mulvihill said.

"Talk about the future, make plans, add activities to a ‘wish list’ for when you’re able to be together again, or talk about a future family (or individual) vacation. While we may not know how far ahead these things will be, it’s still important to think about the future to stay positive," Mulvihill added. "Encourage them to maintain structure in their day. Creating structure/schedule in your day can help daily life to feel more ‘normal,’ and can help avoid long periods of time without purpose."

Also, Mulvihill suggested, "Encourage them to get outside if they can, even if it’s just in their yard, on a balcony, or just opening a window. Fresh air and sunshine can be very helpful in improving overall mood and decreasing feelings of depression and anxiety."

Dr. Kreitzer recommended connecting with others on their journey.

"It also might be helpful to ask people how have they coped in the past with something challenging, and so sometimes having people draw upon memories can be very helpful," said Kreitzer.

But, if you’re experiencing loneliness and nothing seems to be cutting it, professionals say it’s time to take the next step.

"Know that there are resources to help if someone they care about is struggling with feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Mental Health Minnesota has two services that work to address feelings of social isolation and loneliness," said Kreitzer. The Minnesota Warmline is a peer-to-peer phone line that helps people who are struggling with a mental health condition/feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation. Our CONNECT initiative has volunteers who reach out to those who sign up for calls because they are feeling isolated during this time."