Amid the coronavirus pandemic, could loneliness be our next public health crisis?

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, could loneliness be our next public health crisis?
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The birds seem extra talkative at Freedom Park on a Thursday morning. A few sit together on nearby branches, six-foot rule be damned, and chirp back and forth.

Maybe this is normal, and I’m just not used to chirps being the only audible sound at the park.

There aren’t kids sprinting across the playground or basketballs swishing through nets. Swings are wrapped around the frame and tied in a knot so they can’t be used. Basketball hoops are zip-tied, and volleyball courts — now without nets — are just giant, vacant sandboxes.

Perhaps the birds are wondering the same thing we are: What the heck happened?

Coronavirus happened, and it happened fast.

Unlike any other crisis, we can’t hug our neighbors or gather in places of worship or commiserate over a beer at a local pub.

With more than 650 cases in the county, we’re under a mandatory stay at home order — a measure that, if followed, would help to flatten the curve of infection and keep our hospitals from getting overwhelmed like they have in New York City and Italy.

While necessary, this order is hard.

It can feel lonely to hole up at home for days and weeks at a time, only leaving for groceries or a walk. Some essential workers have separated themselves from loved ones.

This outbreak isn’t just a strain on our hospital systems and on our economy. It’s a gut punch to our mental health.

“You’re combining a sense of personal harm with economic harm with great uncertainty with social isolation all at once and very suddenly,” N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson tells me over the phone.

“Of course that’s going to leave a mark on the psyche for some people. For some people, that’s going to be a really deep mark.”

The peak of the coronavirus outbreak locally isn’t expected for another few weeks. According to modeling from the region’s biggest hospital systems, cases will surge sometime between mid-April and mid-May. That timeframe is the best-case scenario, and assumes that we collectively commit to staying home and social distancing. (Key word there being “assumes.” Not everyone is following the order.)

Complicating matters is the fact that Charlotte and other cities around the world don’t have enough tests, protective equipment, ventilators, space, and even staff.

By the time this is over, it’s likely we’ll all know someone who had coronavirus. We may even know someone who died from it. As the number of cases climb, it’s nearly impossible to not be affected in some way.

I don’t say all this to worry you. I say this to recognize that it’s absolutely normal to feel anxious right now.

“There are a lot of causes for loneliness, but few of them throughout history have been as civically crucial as this,” Jackson says.

“Your sacrifice is serving a direct and immediate goal on behalf of your friends, your neighbors, and your state.”

In a survey last week, we asked Agenda subscribers if they’ve struggled with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or depression since the coronavirus pandemic. More than 60 percent of respondents — 2,722 people — said yes.

“Who isn’t anxious right now?” one respondent wrote.

Maggie Hamilton, who works in banking and is considered an essential employee, tells me she worries about her parents and grandmother.

Hamilton, 24, was living with them when coronavirus first started to spread in the U.S. At the time, she was helping to care for her grandmother, who was recently widowed.

Both her grandmother and her parents are high-risk due to age and existing health conditions. Hamilton decided to move out of the home in Monroe, fearing her daily interactions at work could put her loved ones at even greater risk.

It’s been hard, she says. Hamilton has never lived more than 15 minutes away from her tight-knit family. She still drops off groceries, but she can’t go inside the house she considers home. A couple of times, they’ve eaten pizza from afar in the garage, but it’s not the same.

“We brought our own food. … We didn’t hug. We took our own chairs. … It was not at all the Sunday lunch we’re used to,” she says.

Maggie Hamilton (far left) with her parents and grandmother having lunch on Sunday while practicing social distancing. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton.)

Many essential workers have adjusted their routines to best protect loved ones. Some tell me they shower before hugging a spouse or child; others are living in isolation around the clock to protect the ones they love most.

One nurse wrote in our survey she sleeps with a barrier between her and her husband in bed to prevent the chance of spreading the virus. “We haven’t hugged or kissed in a month. … It sucks, but we have to do what we have to.”

Dr. Paula Keeton, director of UNC Charlotte’s counseling center, says she’s seen similar resilience from students. They’re finding new ways to connect with “virtual house parties” or watching Netflix together over Zoom.

But anxieties and stress remain a hurdle for many students in this unprecedented crisis.

“This decreased social support creates more vulnerability,” she says, “especially if folks are worrying about their own health or their loved ones health.”

NAMI Charlotte president Mark Jackson says that while we’re focused on the public health crisis that is coronavirus, we can’t lose sight of the mental health crisis looming.

“The mental health professionals need to be there now for the people who are in the throes of the coronavirus situation,” he says.

NAMI, or National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a nonprofit that provides education, advocacy, and support for those battling mental illness. Right now, Jackson says, support is key.

It’s important to not just offer support to those with existing mental illnesses or those who feel isolated under a stay at home order, he says, but also to those who have been tested for COVID-19 and are waiting for results.

“They have three days to seven days, depending upon wherever you are in the country, of waiting. Talk about anxiety,” Jackson says.

Already, he’s seen mental health professionals being inundated with calls from existing and new clients. NAMI Charlotte has started to offer additional virtual resources like support groups and art therapy, but it takes time to shift gears so drastically.

For each of us, Jackson says, helping others isn’t a cure-all, but it’s the closest thing to it. NAMI is always looking for volunteers, he plugs, but also the simple act of calling a friend or loved one on the phone to check in can help both parties.

N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson (no relation) echoes the NAMI chapter president and urges Charlotteans to donate protective equipment if they have any and help make masks if they’re able to sew. These could be life-saving actions as we approach the surge.

This is also a time to take care of yourself, the state senator says.

Little things like eating chocolate, taking a bath, or going for a walk outside and listening to the birds.

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