Impacts of COVID-19 and social isolation on mental health explored in WMU study

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Humans are social beings. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented and abrupt interruption of physical and traditional social interaction for many people around the globe. New research by a team at Western Michigan University shines a light on how that social isolation impacts mental health among Americans and uncovers potential mitigation strategies as this new normal stretches on.

"What we found was that social isolation was a very strong predictor of depression, anxiety and stress across the board," says Dr. Brooke Smith, assistant professor of psychology, who led the research alongside doctoral student Alex Twohy

The team surveyed a pool of nearly 300 participants primarily in the United States from mid-April to May 2020, when many communities were under some form of shelter-in-place orders. In addition to finding a strong relationship between isolation and mental health outcomes, they also discovered a potential buffer to the negative effects: psychological flexibility.

"Psychological flexibility is the ability to sit with and be with difficult thoughts and feelings when doing so helps you live your life in meaningful ways," Smith says. "So, even though we might have been sheltering in place and socially isolated, the negative effects of that could be lessened by being accepting of our thoughts and feelings, being accepting of the fact that we don't know what's going to happen and then not suppressing our emotions."

Finding ways to connect with others through technology or in-person while following proper safety precautions can help ease feelings of isolation. Internally, says Smith, we can ease negative mental health outcomes by focusing on becoming more accepting of our own experience, anxiety and uncertainty about things we cannot control. 

An illustration of several people on video calls.

Finding ways to connect with others can help ease feelings of isolation.

"Personally, my most distressing thoughts are about my parents and whether or not they're going to make it through this pandemic safely, because they're very high risk, so I worry about them a lot. For somebody else, it might be something different, but we're all worrying. We all have thoughts that are hard to handle right now and stress us out. So rather than trying to put those away or trying to distract ourselves from them or self-medicate … how can we make room for those thoughts?"

Smith and Twohy's research is published in the Journal of Contextual and Behavioral Science. Their findings are also the focus of an upcoming webinar in a monthly series focused on COVID-19-related research at WMU. The presentation and discussion is Thursday, Nov. 12, at noon and can be accessed online. Smith and Twohy hope to begin a new study soon involving pandemic-related burnout and its effect on mental health and the willingness to comply with behavioral safety measures.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.