Skip to main content

Understanding the Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health

December 8, 2020

Despite increased connectivity online, many individuals find themselves feeling increasingly isolated and socially disconnected. Whether due to physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, geographic relocation, or personal life circumstances, there are severe effects of social isolation on mental health. Social isolation has been linked to heightened risks of depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline.

In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called loneliness a national epidemic. In early 2024, the American Psychiatric Association’s Healthy Minds Monthly Poll revealed that 30 percent of American adults felt lonely at least weekly over the past year, while 10 percent reported feeling lonely every day. Younger adults were particularly vulnerable, with 30 percent of those aged 18-34 saying they feel lonely daily or several times a week. These findings underscore the importance of prioritizing public health initiatives and interventions to combat loneliness on a national scale.

Social isolation remains a complex and global public health issue. A 2023 Gallup study based on a survey involving over 100,000 participants across 142 countries revealed that nearly a quarter of the global population felt “very lonely” or “fairly lonely” — meaning that an estimated billion people or more experienced a lack of social connection.

Public health experts must continue to explore the intricate nature of social isolation, studying its causes, its connections to mental health challenges, and the interventions that can reduce social isolation and bolster social connection. By analyzing current research and sharing practical strategies, Master of Public Health (MPH) graduates can provide tools for prevention and support to individuals and communities struggling with social isolation and its mental health effects.

What Is Social Isolation?

Social isolation is not necessarily bad; most people crave solitude at least occasionally. Being alone can be relaxing, meditative, and rejuvenating. Social isolation typically refers to solitude that is unwanted and unhealthy.

Socially isolated people may lack friends or close co-workers, and they often feel lonely or depressed. They can suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety. The following symptoms associated with social isolation are warning signs of unhealthy social isolation:

  • Avoiding social interactions, including those that were once enjoyable
  • Canceling plans frequently and feeling relief when plans are canceled
  • Experiencing anxiety or panic when thinking about social interactions
  • Feeling distress during periods of solitude
  • Feeling dread about social activities
  • Spending large amounts of time alone or having extremely limited contact with others

Social isolation can involve emotional isolation: an unwillingness or inability to share one’s feelings with others. When socially isolated individuals lack emotional interaction and support, they can become emotionally numb — detached from their own feelings.

Isolation and Loneliness

When experts study isolation’s causes and effects, they distinguish between social isolation and loneliness.

Social isolation is characterized by a lack of social relationships or an infrequency of social contact. Loneliness is a subjective feeling of isolation. A person can be socially isolated but not feel lonely. People can also feel lonely when they are surrounded by others.

Nonetheless, isolation and loneliness are very much linked. Studies of the causes, symptoms, and impacts of loneliness shed light on the potential negative effects of social isolation.

Advance Your Public Health Career with an MPH Program

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

What Causes Social Isolation?

Many circumstances can cause people to be isolated from others or to choose self-isolation:

  • Intimate partner violence. People in abusive relationships sometimes avoid contact with family, friends, or co-workers because of an unwillingness to reveal their true situation.
  • Loss of loved ones. Isolating after the loss of friends or family members can be common, especially among seniors who have lost many loved ones in their age group.
  • Mental health issues. Issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem often result from social isolation, but they can also cause it. That is why it is important to study the links between mental health and public health
  • Remote location. Individuals who live in remote areas or who are geographically separated from family and friends due to job duties (military service, for example) can experience feelings of isolation.
  • Physical impairments. Physical challenges that limit mobility can reduce an individual’s ability to interact socially. Some people with physical disabilities feel ashamed of their disability or appearance; this can make them reluctant to interact socially. Hearing and vision impairments can also create a sense of isolation.
  • Social media. Communication via social media helps some people stay connected to others, but it can lead to isolation if it becomes a substitute for meaningful conversations and in-person socialization.
  • Unemployment. Shame associated with losing a job or being unable to secure new employment can lead individuals to self-isolate.

Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness

Mental and physical health are interconnected. The effects of social isolation on mental health range from sleeplessness to reduced immune function. Loneliness is associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates, as well as physical health outcomes. 

Links between social isolation and serious medical conditions are not fully understood, but ample evidence supports the connection. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology linked social isolation with higher risks of premature mortality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to loneliness and isolation as serious public health risks.

High-Risk Groups

Some groups face challenges that increase their risk of isolation and loneliness:

  • Immigrants. Language barriers, cultural and economic challenges, and limited social ties can contribute to social isolation for immigrants.
  • Marginalized groups. LGBTQIA+ people, people of color, and others who routinely face discrimination and stigma can feel socially isolated.
  • Older adults. Older people often live alone. Hearing or vision loss can contribute to their social isolation.

Social Isolation and Global Pandemics

Physical distancing involves avoiding close or frequent interaction with the aim of limiting the spread of infectious diseases. 

Social isolation can also result from physical distancing measures, as evidenced by the effects of social isolation on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Physical Distancing’s Effects on Social Isolation

Some effects of social isolation are specific to pandemics or other public health challenges that require people to physically distance. Loneliness and depression can go hand-in-hand with anxiety and fear about the dangers associated with the event that made physical distancing measures necessary.

Plus, people sometimes experience anger and resentment about health and safety measures that they find unnecessary or too restrictive. Even people who are supportive of safety-related isolation and quarantines can experience frustration and irritability.

Post-Lockdown Anxiety

Some people affected by COVID-19 lockdown measures found that they were afraid to leave isolation. Anxiety or dread as a response to returning to work, school, or other outside activities could have stemmed from a fear of infection or triggered by the change itself. Leaving the relatively secure and stable environment of one’s home introduced uncertainties and disrupted routines that many people had integrated into their “new normal.”

Preventing Social Isolation

Strategies for addressing social isolation’s negative impacts vary depending on the severity of the related symptoms and effects.

Self-Care Strategies for Physical Distancing

Individuals dealing with social isolation need to have self-care strategies. This is particularly true when the factors contributing to isolation present real barriers to accessing outside resources.

For example, a disease outbreak can limit in-person access to health care. People who live in remote areas may not have easy in-person access to mental health professionals.

Individuals can lessen isolation’s negative effects by taking steps to address the challenges that isolation presents:

  • Engage in relaxing activities. Exercise and stretching, reading, listening to music, meditation and prayer, journaling, and hobbies can help relieve stress that can be associated with isolation.
  • Follow a routine. Daily routines promote a sense of purpose and normalcy.
  • Maintain healthy habits. Eating well, getting enough sleep, and engaging in physical activity can promote better mental health.
  • Stay connected. If conditions limit in-person contact, then calling, emailing, texting, using social media platforms, and videoconferencing can be used to stay in touch.
  • Stay informed. Staying in the loop can be particularly important for those isolated due to a dangerous threat, such as a disease outbreak. Learning the facts about their risk can help people avoid feeling panicky. That said, controlling media consumption is also helpful –– too much exposure to negative news can feed anxiety.

Therapeutic Treatment

Individuals suffering from the effects of social isolation on mental health should be mindful of their symptoms and seek help from experts if the symptoms persist or become severe.

Therapists help by exploring underlying issues related to isolation or self-isolation. For example, a person’s isolation may be a sign of depression or an anxiety disorder.

In addition to identifying underlying issues, a therapist can develop treatment plans that help people regain a sense of control over their social lives. Types of therapy used to treat social isolation include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps people become more aware of negative or inaccurate thoughts that affect their behavior. CBT sessions can help individuals identify misperceptions and reshape negative thinking.
  • Exposure therapy. Exposure therapy programs help people break avoidance and fear patterns. During exposure therapy sessions, in a safe environment, individuals are exposed (in reality or in their imagination) to situations they avoid. They confront fears, process emotions, and manage anxiety.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which a small number of people with similar issues or goals meet regularly to discuss their experiences under the guidance of a licensed therapist. It may involve elements of CBT, exposure therapy, or other therapeutic modalities.

Group members benefit from shared experiences and support, helping reduce feelings of isolation common in mental health struggles. Group therapy may provide a cost-effective alternative to individual therapy, improving accessibility within community mental health settings.

When to Seek Professional Help

Individuals who experience any of the following should consider consulting a medical or mental health professional:

  • Confused thinking
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Excessive feelings of anger or fear
  • Extreme swings in emotion
  • Inability to cope with daily problems
  • Major changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Prolonged depression
  • Social withdrawal
  • Substance misuse 

When circumstances limit in-person contact, people can connect with a mental health professional by phone or videoconference.

Some isolated people can find it difficult to ask for help. When others keep an eye out for those who might need assistance but are hesitant to ask, they can play a part in lessening isolation’s negative effects on the community.

Creating Healthier Communities

Public health professionals lead efforts to address widespread health issues, such as the effects of social isolation on mental health. For people interested in serving on public health’s front line, Tulane University’s Online MPH degree supplies tools to improve health outcomes for entire communities.

Offered through the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, the Online MPH program encompasses a full range of public health practices, including biostatistics, epidemiology, behavioral science, and management. 

Designed for early- and mid-career professionals called to service in public health, Tulane’s Online MPH program develops community-informed, socially conscious practitioners who can assess health risks and their implications for social justice. Program graduates promote health equity and create healthier communities for all.

Advance Your Public Health Career with an MPH Program

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

Recommended Readings:

Disease Outbreak Response: Exploring the Critical Roles of Epidemiologists, Disease Detectives, and Other Public Health Experts

What Is Health Equity? Ensuring Access for Everyone

Why Community Health Is Important for Public Health


American Psychiatric Association, New APA Poll: One in Three Americans Feels Lonely Every Week

American Psychological Association, “The Risks of Social Isolation”

American Psychological Association, What Is Exposure Therapy?

Anxiety & Depression Association of America, “10 Tips to Manage Re-Entry Anxiety Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions

Gallup, “Almost a Quarter of the World Feels Lonely” 

GoodTherapy, Isolation

Mayo Clinic, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Mental Health America, Finding Help: When to Get It and Where to Go

Pew Research Center, “Americans Unhappy With Family, Social or Financial Life Are More Likely to Say They Feel Lonely”

TherapyTribe, Social Isolation Therapy