In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health authorities including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are strongly urging physical distancing as a measure to stem the spread of the virus. That is, the practice of maintaining physical distance — at least three feet according to the WHO and at least six feet according to the CDC — from others, especially those exhibiting symptoms.
I respect the experts’ guidance, which is why I’m practicing physical distancing myself and encouraging others to do the same. At the same time, I value social connectedness, another vitally important concept with its own health implications, especially for young people. Allow me to explain.
A 2015 Bringham and Young University study found that a lack of social connection — social isolation — has a direct negative impact on both physical and mental health. According to the study’s lead researcher Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival.”
For many of us, we have had to adjust to our new daily routines. States like California and my home state of New York have issued shelter-in-place orders, mandating that residents remain in their homes unless they need to leave for essential reasons. Millions more are home under self-quarantine and schools across the country are closed for weeks, months, or indefinitely.
Our ability to socialize with one another while in physical proximity has been limited by necessity. But these restrictions don’t have to, and shouldn’t, limit our ability to connect. We can still remotely socialize with friends, family, and loved ones. Digital communities can provide a place, especially for people who are quarantined alone, to discuss emotions and thoughts, remain engaged in conversation, and find a sense of community with people who have shared experiences.
In order to cope with this particularly challenging moment, the World Health Organization recommends that young adults remain in contact with their social circle via online platforms but minimize exposure to the news that could cause stress or anxiety. Research shows that regular social media use among young people does not appear to impact mental health, suggesting that the relationship between social media use and mental health is more nuanced than often assumed. The survey finds that a significant plurality (62%) of LGBTQ+ youth report going online to find relatable people because it’s hard to do so in daily life compared to 40% of non LGBTQ+ youth.
Kindness will go a long way as we continue to physically distance ourselves. Be it for our schools, workplaces, homes, friend groups, or yourselves; kindness has the power to build communities and shows that we are stronger together. Whether you’re delivering meals to those in need, supporting your children through the virtual school, or getting through the day by focusing on self-care, just remember that you are not alone and that being kind and focusing on your mental health helps you have the clarity to plan effectively and support others.
We all have a responsibility to each other and to ourselves to lead with kindness, stay connected, and follow the guidelines provided by professionals and leaders who are aiding us in these challenging times.
It’s up to each of us – including our leaders – to make informed decisions and accurately communicate potentially life-saving information to limit the negative implications on our collective health. Research on this topic is ever-evolving, and it is necessary to establish credible sources of information while also reminding ourselves of the many ways we can stay connected.
While we cannot be together physically, we can still build social communities that are caring, kind, and prioritize physical and mental health. It is times like these that I’m reminded of what my daughter says: “It’s okay to not be okay.” We are all feeling the impact of having to adapt to a new daily routine. Do what you need to do to recharge while remaining physically distant. Through it all, I urge all of us to stay socially engaged, not isolated. Because the only way we can get through this separation is together.