The fact that many people are unable to see their friends and loved ones in person only makes the situation worse. “Social distancing is really hard on people, and it’s especially taking its toll on people who are isolated at home alone,” Meredith said. “Loneliness can be a big source of stress.”
Even under more normal circumstances, prolonged loneliness can contribute to depression and anxiety, as well as to physical health problems. One 2016 study, for example, found that being lonely was associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. Today, the ordinary risks of loneliness could be magnified by the stress of living during a pandemic. For people who are social distancing right now, “there is a high risk that they’re going to become more anxious, much more depressed, and it’s going to have longer-term effects,” Rima Styra, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, told Vox.
Overall, a lot of people around the world are experiencing a dip in mental well-being. Factors from “looming severe shortages of resources” to the “imposition of unfamiliar public health measures that infringe on personal freedoms” are likely to increase emotional distress during this time, psychiatry professors Betty Pfefferbaum and Carol S. North wrote in a paper published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.