The Ever-Present Mental Health Need For Us & Our Kids
Amid the pandemic, other health concerns have obviously taken precedence.
However, the mental health and mental wellness issues over the previous several months have also risen dramatically. It may get increasingly worse the more we experience cancelations, withdraws, and isolation.
Early results of research of 2300 school-aged children showed after just 33 days of stay-at home orders, 22.6% of children reported depressive symptoms and 18.9% were experiencing anxiety. 1
Results from recent research from the University of Wisconsin and Dr. McGuine showed similar trends. During school related closures, anxiety rates of adolescents increased to around 65%, meaning approximately 66,000 adolescents kids were at risk for mental health related issues. In addition, physical activity rates during COVID-19 closures resulted in a 50% decrease.2
Why do these numbers occur?
Extreme social distancing measures result in social isolation.
Isolation is the worst type of punishment. Isolation breeds anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
The most dangerous type of incarceration for prisoners is solitary confinement. Isolation puts prisoners at risk for serious mental illness, and severe emotional, cognitive, and social consequences. Numerous studies into the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners have shown serious detriments after just 10 days. 3
The results from solitary confinement caused people to become more self-centered, irritable, and defensive.
Harry Harlow was an American psychologist whose laboratory bred and reared Rhesus monkeys. In one of his controversial studies, he looked at the effects of separation on baby monkeys and their mothers.
The three groups of baby monkeys consisted of complete separation from their mothers and they were placed in total social isolation for various periods of time: 3 months, 6 months, and a year.
The results were disturbing.
The monkeys’ so-called “basic needs” of food and shelter were met, but the isolation from their mother and others caused extreme maladjustment.
It showed that even at 3 months of isolation, the baby monkeys suffered psychological damage. They had bizarre behavior and struggled at any interaction with other monkeys. The psychological effects of those at 3 months however could be reversed, given time. 4
However, it was the effects on the monkeys who were isolated for one year without a mother that appeared to be irreversible. When they were re-introduced to other monkeys, they barely moved and did not explore or play. Some monkeys who had been isolated for over a year even refused to eat.
The caregiving of a mother produced a safe and secure bond, which then reflected the baby monkey’s view of the outside world. A secure relationship with their mother early on meant the outside world was also the same.
His research showed that the bond and connection with others was as important as food to the overall development. Could these results translate into the mental health need for us?
Does this translate to our lives and our children’s lives?
Separation from others puts the brain on high alert and causes people to distort their own minds and their view of others. There is a reason why we were separated, because there was a real threat. The brain continues to operate in this manner however. Think about how alert we are throughout every day life trying to make sure we are not close to anyone, nor are they close to us.
The mental fallout from the pandemic and quarantine lies in the effects on our own mind and how we look at the world.
As a result, instead of viewing people as social connections to be made, our isolated brain instead now views most people and situations as threats.
We are social creatures. We seek companionship, tribes, and a collective sharing of experiences. A sense of collective community is the number one cause for mental wellness amongst school-aged children.
However, oddly enough, isolation becomes like junk food.
Isolation becomes what our mind starts to crave, even though it’s the worst possible solution for us. We know junk food tastes good, but it leaves us feeling lousy.
The reason why we seek isolation is because our mind has one simple job and it is excellent at it. Our brain’s job is to keep us safe. It does not want us to experience stress or risk. The easiest way to stay safe is to stay home and don’t do anything.
Isolation does keep us physically safe, but at the same time our coping skills atrophy and we remain on “high-alert.” Isolation is not the mental health need for us.
Social isolation hinders our natural emotional and mental development. Due to our isolation, a negative cycle continues, our mood can worsen and we feel even more fearful and isolated.
What is the remedy?
The technology of today allows us to connect and saves us all up to a point. But, we’ve created or become I-pad zombies and it also doesn’t allow for real connection of shared experiences to take place.
Social interaction at school or athletics among children in grades K-12 is imperative for the development of language, communication, social, emotional, and interpersonal skills.5
The school environment provides opportunities for kids to develop friendships and relationships, handle conflicts, communicate effectively, and behave in groups.
Students learn how to manage emotions, gain confidence and develop and engage others’ perspectives and experiences different from their own. Depending upon the age of the children, their peer group is developed and nurtured and it becomes their main source of connectedness and stability.
We are social creatures and we need each other.
Connection is the mental need for us! We need to be proactive about our relationships because relationships get deeper or they often die. The effects of the isolation sometimes can be seen very quickly. However, the longer we are without one another, the more deep-rooted these emotional issues become. These issues have deep hidden costs.
Merely returning to normalcy with measures in place will offset the price that many families will pay if we keep isolating.
The vast safety measures that are in place are stronger at school and practice than at any other time of the day, except of course inside of the home. Additional safety pre-cautions will be commonplace such as, testing prior to school, or awaiting test results before re-entering general population. However, these are not common yet and sadly appear to be a rare exception. Hopefully, it will be soon.
- Metzner, J. L., & Fellner, J. (2010). Solitary confinement and mental illness in U.S. prisons: A challenge for medical ethics. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38(1), 104–108.
- Harlow, H. F., Dodsworth, R. O., & Harlow, M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 54(1), 90–97.
Dr. Rob Bell is a Sport Psychology Coach. His company DRB & associates coach executives and professional athletes and is based in Indianapolis. Some clients have included three winners on the PGA Tour, Indy Eleven, University of Notre Dame, Marriott, and Walgreens.
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