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Managing loneliness during COVID-19

Yesterday the San Francisco Bay Area was ordered to shelter in place due to growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. I’m fully supportive of the government putting measures in place to ensure that people are social distancing themselves to help ease the load on our health care system during this pandemic. While this may feel drastic now, I’m proud of our local government for proactively responding to this public health emergency. If anything, I worry that this measure may be too late.

This post isn’t about COVID-19 itself. It’s about some of the side effects that we may encounter from our response to this disease. In particular, I’m concerned about social isolation and loneliness during this 3 week period of sheltering in place. I can only imagine what this experience must be like for people who live by themselves or live with people who they are not particularly close to (e.g., a questionable Craigslist roommate).

Last night, my girlfriend and I tried an experiment. We posted a link to an open Google Hangout and told our friends that we were going to be online for a couple hours hosting a virtual happy hour / dinner / dessert party. We weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up or if it would be awkward for friends who didn’t know each other to be on the same video chat. There were certainly some momements that were a little awkward, but all in all, I think it was a success and I plan on doing it again.

After we signed off of the Google Hangout, I couldn’t help but reflect on the impact that sheltering in place will have on our collective mental health. Regardless of how introverted we are (myself included), we all need some social interaction. For many people, seeing colleagues at work, or sitting next to people on public transit is a reminder that we are part of a greater community. When we stay at home it’s easy to lose touch with those around us.

My concern is that many people will face mental health challenges, or at least bouts of loneliness, during this period of isolation.

Those of us who have the privilege of being surrounded by people who we care about (and who care about us) should make concerted efforts to reach out. If you’re willing, I’d encourage you to consider calling friends who you think may be spending significant amounts of time alone, even if you haven’t talked to them in a long time. Even a short conversation (10-15 minutes) will go a long way. It’s good for you and it’s good for them.

Anyway, food for thought as we enter uncharted territory. Stay safe and wash your hands.

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