Social Isolation and Mental Health: By Obaidul Haq, The Aga Khan University Karachi

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“Friendship is a buffer”. Social contacts are important for us in our life. It helps us in getting support and empathy from others as well as provides us opportunities to discuss our problem and difficulties with others. Others are important in one’s life either in the form of friends, coworker, neighbor, family, spouse or relatives. They influence us in many forms and provide major support to us in difficult situations. Social relationships beneficially affect health, not only because of their supportiveness, but also because of the social control that others exercise over a person, especially by encouraging health-promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, diet, exercise, and compliance with medical regimes or by discouraging health-damaging behaviors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, or drug abuse.
Social isolation is the absence of social interactions, contacts, and relationships with family and friends, with neighbors on an individual level, and with society at large on a broader level so it is the phenomenon of non-participation [of an individual or group] in a society’s mainstream institutions. It is the lack of meaningful relationship. Social isolation can contribute toward many emotional, behavioral and physical disorders including anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, addictions, substance abuse, violent behavior and overall disease. Social isolation affects a wider range of people and influences the life of individuals in diverse ways including in the work environment, school and others. Social isolation has harmful effects for the functioning and well-being of individuals, and for unity and social cohesion within society. Personal quality of life is very much affected by being part of a social network. Some consider social isolation as a phenomenon of modern times where the introduction of technology and the changes of societal structure minimize the importance of social contacts. Others consider social isolation as “The Connection Gap” and explained that the changes in the structure of society are prime factors that increased the risk of becoming socially isolated.
Social isolation is increasing in the world because life becomes more materialistic. People have no time to discuss with others and also to hear others concerns. Americans are more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of closed friends American has dropped from around three to about two in last twenty years. Most of People reported that their spouse is the only person they can confide in and if people face trouble in that relationship, or if a spouse falls sick, that means these people have no one to turn to for help. In Pakistan the social isolation is not very common but it is certainly increases with the passage of time. Our society structure is so that mostly people are living in joint families which provide opportunities to a person to discuss feelings with other family members. But poverty, stresses (financial, physical, psychological) some time makes a person unable to indulge in social contact as frequently as necessary. But on the other hand if a person becomes socially isolated from the community, there is no support system at the government level or at the private level. Socially isolated people are trying to get happiness and reduce their worries which are accumulated in their mind as they are not ventilating their emotion and feeling. So they are involved in drug addictions which are easily available in our community which further deteriorates the condition of a person who is socially isolated.
Social isolation is a complex phenomenon which can not be explained in an easy way that what exact reasons of it are. The mental illness like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar affective disorder leads to social isolation. Social isolation is extremely prevalent among people with mental illness and 58% of the mentally ill were socially withdrawn in a study conducted on social isolation and mental illness. Good social network act as a buffer against stress can reduce illness and can have a positive effect on general wellbeing. On the other hand, social isolation can make it extensively harder for people with a mental illness to cope with their mental health problems. Social isolation is also a contributing factor to depression. So it is clear that social isolation leads to mental illness and mental illness leads to social isolation. So it is a vicious cycle. The other reason of isolation is conflicts in the family and friends which sometime lead to social isolation in the person who is unable to involve in the conflicts and argumentation. Sometimes the demand and expectation from a person are not to the level of individual and the person gets into social isolation. The economic situation of person is very important in the journey of life. If a person is unable to enjoy the life with the friends due to his/her economic condition and if it happen continuously, it makes the person disheartened, decreases his self esteem and may leads to social isolation. Aggression from others in the group work and in social activities is cause of social isolation in some people who are short temper. While the person who shows aggression leads to rejection by peer group which ultimately cause social exclusion and this in turns leads to social isolation. Stressful life events can also make a person so much dishearten that it can leads to social isolation. The personal habits are also important in the development of social isolation. If a person is annoyance, he is less likely to be accepted by the people which also make him prone to social isolation. Social isolation has very bad impacts of person physical, psychological, social and professional life as well as it affects family of isolated person.
Social ties seem to protect against various ills, including depression, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, infections and even death. On the other hand, the magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors. Social isolation harms health in several ways First, it encourages bad habits, such as inactivity and unhealthy eating, if someone is isolated he/she is less likely to take care of himself, and other people are less likely to press him to take care of himself. Second, isolation elevates blood levels of stress hormones, which can cause inflammation and other consequences in the body. Those changes harm the cardiovascular system. Third, being having a small social circle weakens the normal immune response. Hence social isolation has a great significance on physical, social and mental health.
Strategies to prevent social isolation are multidimensional. It can be at individual, group or community and Institutional level. At individual level strategies should be incorporated in personal life to decrease vulnerability to social isolation. At individual level to be free from isolation and its dangerous side effects some tips should be incorporated in life. These are, firstly promote relationships wherever you can. It doesn’t really matter if the ties are with friends and relatives or with religious and voluntary associations. Secondly, meet people voluntarily and start an activity which you thing is interested for you this may be gardening, art or something else. Thirdly, help those who are in need and participate in the community service. Fourthly, when you get lonely, don’t become hostile toward others. And finally develop friends throughout life. All these strategies will prevent a person from social isolation. At the family and community the emotional and psychological needs of the person should be recognized. The person should be assessed at early stage of social isolation, so that corrective measures should be taken at an appropriate stage to help person and prevent progression to mental illness. The community should be sensitized regarding the sings and symptoms of social isolation. Moreover, the community should develop social groups which help socially isolated persons. The community people should know the behaviors which compel a person on social isolation. In addition, the community should arrange financial resources for the person who is socially isolated due to poor economical condition. At a government level, the government should initiate awareness session on media for the masses so that they can understand social isolation. Government should focus on the preventive care of the socially isolated people in order to prevent mental illness. The government should bridge the gape between poor and elite class people so that the poor don’t degrade themselves. There should be justice in every field of life like employment, business and career opportunities so that the eligible should not feel disgraced and disappointed which further leads to social isolation.
Socialization of individual has great importance in every aspects of one’s life. It helps a person to be healthy physically and psychologically. Socialization in the form of friendship acts a buffer. It eliminates the worries, stresses and difficulties from one’s life. There are certain contributing factors that alter the socialization of individual and ultimately lead him to social isolation. These factors may be social, psychological and physical. Therefore appropriate steps are necessary to be taken to prevent social isolation at three different levels individual, group and institutional level.

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