Isolation contemplation

First-year arts student Michael Vento said one of the easiest ways to find community is to sit down next to someone new and strike up a conversation. In just a few moments, you can connect with another person and learn about their interests, hobbies and more.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has made this type of connection difficult.

“I think the online learning … and the social isolation definitely took a toll on me because I’m very personal,” Vento said. “I like to get out there. I like to talk to people. I like to be with other people.”

For students like Vento, the impact of the pandemic is not just physical — the lack of community and social interaction is detrimental for mental health as well.

As students across Canada adjust to a life divided across masks and screens, studies have revealed that their mental health is suffering. According to one study from the University of Toronto, college students who did not have a history of mental health issues tended to have worsened mental health outcomes when socially isolated and lonely.

Understanding the biological basis for these complex behavioural outcomes is important to help students navigate how they are feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ubyssey explored how social isolation can influence our mental health and wellbeing, shedding light on one of the unprecedented pitfalls of pandemic living.

Starving for community

When he first moved into student residence and began navigating online learning away from the support of his extended family, third-year physics and math student Robert Beda felt the burden of social isolation. It was when he connected with others that this weight began to lift.

“The ability to hop on a Zoom call or a Discord server and just be together with other people as best one could would improve my situation,” he said.

In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey, master’s of health psychology student Talia Morstead explained that there is substantial evidence for an association between worsened physical and mental health and reduced social connection, with some literature suggesting that the key to a long, healthy life is having a social outlet.

In a 2020 Nature Neuroscience study, researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of people who had been either socially isolated or fasted for ten hours. Subjects were then presented with pictures of food or social cues, revealing the same brain region was activated, regardless of fasting or isolation. This, along with the subjects self-reporting feeling of craving, suggested “acute isolation causes social craving, similar to the way fasting causes hunger.”  

But the pandemic has led to periods of isolation far longer than ten hours. Morstead wrote that social isolation increases the risk of depression and substance abuse. She also explained social isolation may impact our health by dysregulating mechanisms involved in stress response.

Diverse difficulties

With school and work disrupted, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the lives of young adults, according to Morstead. However, they are not the only community that has been disproportionately affected.

In a study that tracked the prevalence of suicidal ideation among Canadians during the first ten months of the pandemic, UBC School of Nursing postdoctoral research fellow Dr. Corey McAuliffe and her colleagues identified several groups who are particularly at risk.

These higher-risk groups detailed in McAuliffe’s research include those who are genderqueer, 2SLGBTQIA+, Indigenous, single or have a pre-existing mental health condition or physical disability. She also noted that generally, BIPOC individuals have experienced higher rates of suicidal ideation, although this theme does not cross-racial or ethnic lines equally.

McAuliffe’s study noted that a “legacy of colonization” in Canada might lead to compounded stress for Indigenous individuals thereby impacting their mental health. In turn, the study asserted that sociodemographic factors also tend to intersect with sociopolitical factors and other aspects of an individual's identity, impacting their risk of suicidal ideation.

As 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals are more likely to rely on a “chosen family” consisting of close friends rather than blood relatives, and whom they may be less likely to live with, they may be more likely to be separated from their support systems due to pandemic measures, according to a May 2020 survey conducted by the LGBT Foundation.

Referencing a family member’s experience, Vento spoke of the burdens that parents faced during lockdowns and isolation. His concern is warranted — according to a British Medical Journal study, parents with children under the age of 18 living at home during the pandemic were at a much greater risk of poor mental health outcomes than those without. Concerns that were unique to parents with children at home included worries about their kids’ physical and mental health outcomes, as well as their education and alternate childcare options.

According to McAuliffe, individuals who do not feel supported in their struggle with social isolation should not face these burdens as reflective of their own failings.

“There is a community level need to incorporate wellness, and that often doesn’t happen for a lot of people,” she said.

Virtual connections

To cope with isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, McAuliffe emphasised the importance of searching for alternative ways to connect with others. Her research has shown that online communities — particularly those centred around gaming or other interactive hobbies — have the potential to foster connection and benefit mental health.

This was a reality for Beda, who cited the UBC Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s Discord server and a remote Dungeons and Dragons campaign as a few of the primary drivers in building community during the pandemic.

“I’m sure I’m not alone in finding enriching community through remote gaming in these trying times,” wrote Beda in a statement to The Ubyssey.

Early on in the pandemic, Vento also explored online sources for connection, like TikTok. The diversity of communities on the app, especially the creators who shared relatable and “inspiring” stories were valuable to Vento.

When asked what drew him online, Beda highlighted that remote gaming during the COVID-19 pandemic remained a pleasant experience.

“[There’s] a bit of solidarity one can have. Yes, the world outside is very scary in many ways,” he said. “But when you can sit down and also share some sort of interesting stories within a game space as well, that’s just a nice place for creating comfortable community as well.”

Finding your niche

McAuliffe stressed that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to coping with isolation. There are a select few activities that are proven to improve wellbeing for many people, such as incorporating exercise into your daily routine, meditating or meeting with friends and family outdoors when possible. But overall, it’s up to individuals to learn what works for them.

Routine was especially important for Vento, as he cultivated a fitness routine with a close friend in the pandemic.

If you’re struggling to find ways to connect with others through your interests, McAuliffe suggests that this could be an opportunity for you to create spaces for connection. Online communities for a wide variety of hobbies have expanded over the pandemic, showing that if you look for like-minded individuals, you won’t have a hard time finding them.

“Identifying within yourself what feels supportive, and what doesn’t, and honouring that,” said McAuliffe.

Looking forward, Vento is “broadening the horizon” in his pursuit of community at UBC. He encouraged other students to join him in pursuing new clubs, engaging in small conversations with peers and treating each day like a new opportunity.

“I think there are several things to consider and one is that you’re certainly not alone,” Vento said. “I would totally suggest finding a routine that works for you [and] trying to be more social every day.”

— with files from Sophia Russo

Robert Beda has written one article for The Ubyssey and was the runner-up for The Ubyssey's sci-fi competition