A new study found an association between social isolation during...

A new study found an association between social isolation during the pandemic and greater levels of depression. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A survey study of more than 192,000 people across the nation released Wednesday found an association between greater levels of depression and social isolation during the COVID-19 shutdown, a finding that local mental health experts said was not surprising.

The study "confirms what we've known since the beginning of time," said Jeffrey Reynolds, chief executive of FCA (Family & Children's Association) in Garden City, saying he was speaking "only slightly" tongue-in-cheek. "Human beings are social animals, in that we need to interact with others, otherwise you begin to see not only mental health symptoms, you begin to see physical symptoms associated with isolation.

"The U.S. Surgeon General raised the alarm about loneliness," Reynolds continued. "It's one of our nation's biggest threats to mental health. We saw that with COVID firsthand. The double-edged sword was if you went and interacted with other people, you faced a potentially life-threatening disease, depending on your [health] profile. But if you stayed home you were at risk for depression and other mental health conditions that can be deadlier than COVID."

The study, titled Community Mobility and Depression During the COVID-19 Pandemic, was published by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, on its JAMA Network Open website. It analyzed data from surveys conducted between May 2020 and April 2022.

The study's authors said, "We sought to understand whether individuals residing in communities with diminished social interaction experienced greater levels of depression."

They concluded that there was a definite association: "We found that depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with an element of local environment, namely the extent to which people in a community leave home. Neither COVID-19-related restrictions nor recent COVID-19 activity explained this association," they wrote. "While we cannot determine causation, the potential importance of interventions aimed at increasing social engagement during times of limited mobility merits consideration for future pandemics or other long-term disasters."

Other recent studies have indicated a rise in depression in the midst of the pandemic and survey respondents' concerns about it. For instance, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released earlier this year, based on 2020 data, found that young adults (ages 18 to 24) nationwide were diagnosed as depressed at the highest rate, at 21.5%; while those ages 65 and up had the lowest rate, at 14.2%.

And a Long Island Health Collaborative annual survey, released this year, found that 39% of Suffolk County respondents cited "mental health depression/suicide" as their biggest personal health concerns, though that was not in the top five health concerns for Nassau County survey respondents. 

Victoria Del Vecchio, 53, of Central Islip, said she became so depressed during the pandemic that she considered taking her own life. She got sick with COVID-19 in September 2020, had to quarantine at home, and eventually lost her job as a dental assistant and her apartment as the illness lingered.

“It really had a huge effect on me,” she said. "It was the isolation.”

She eventually got help at the new Stony Brook Medicine Post-COVID Clinic in Lake Grove, where she has been attending the “Long Haul COVID Support Group” for the past two months.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” she said. “No one was really comprehending it the way that they do there.”

Brian Morales is still dealing with depressive symptoms, not from isolation during the pandemic shutdown, but from contracting COVID-19 in the early weeks of the virus' spread in the United States in March 2020. Morales, 31, of Elmhurst, Queens, said he developed depression in May 2020 after emerging from a coma after a month-and-a-half, during which he said he had to be intubated.

After he was released from the hospital after a two-month stay, Morales said family support was critical: "I was traumatized. I had PTSD. I couldn't be alone in my room. A lot of thoughts came to my mind," including thoughts he described as "very scary, very frightening. It made me think about what's going to be next. The only thing that helped me out was my family. My mom was next to me the whole time."

In the years since, his condition has improved, Morales said, but is not completely eradicated. "I still do need to see the psychologists." He said the flashbacks of that traumatic time have receded. Now, he said, "I always try to keep my mind busy, going to the gym, going out with my family, watching comedies. It was very traumatizing. I was literally facing death." But now he focuses on "wonderful moments yet to come."

Local mental health experts said the study is in line with their own experience with patients during the pandemic and its aftermath.

Dr. Thomas Gut, associate chair of medicine and medical director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital, part of the Northwell Health network, said the study's conclusions "highlights just how much of a long-term crisis this COVID pandemic has created for us, and will continue to create for us after this pandemic has dampened."

Because of the pandemic lockdowns, Gut noted, "People weren't going to the gym. They weren't going to the movies. They weren't going to dinner … They didn't have their normal routines in place to preserve and strengthen their mental health and physical well-being." And that, Gut said, promoted isolation.

Colleen Merlo, chief executive of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, said, "We need human connection." 

"Some people were isolated alone," Merlo said, leading some to develop "depressive symptoms, of people feeling sad and alone."

Merlo said the COVID pandemic was a "traumatic experience … As much as we all want to get to a pre-COVID normal, if we don't take time to slow down and heal, we're right back in it, perpetuating trauma."

With Bart Jones

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Victoria Del Vecchio.

A survey study of more than 192,000 people across the nation released Wednesday found an association between greater levels of depression and social isolation during the COVID-19 shutdown, a finding that local mental health experts said was not surprising.

The study "confirms what we've known since the beginning of time," said Jeffrey Reynolds, chief executive of FCA (Family & Children's Association) in Garden City, saying he was speaking "only slightly" tongue-in-cheek. "Human beings are social animals, in that we need to interact with others, otherwise you begin to see not only mental health symptoms, you begin to see physical symptoms associated with isolation.

"The U.S. Surgeon General raised the alarm about loneliness," Reynolds continued. "It's one of our nation's biggest threats to mental health. We saw that with COVID firsthand. The double-edged sword was if you went and interacted with other people, you faced a potentially life-threatening disease, depending on your [health] profile. But if you stayed home you were at risk for depression and other mental health conditions that can be deadlier than COVID."

The study, titled Community Mobility and Depression During the COVID-19 Pandemic, was published by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, on its JAMA Network Open website. It analyzed data from surveys conducted between May 2020 and April 2022.

WHAT TO KNOW:

  • A national survey study sought to explore whether people living in communities with “diminished social interaction experienced greater levels of depression” during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • The study, released Wednesday, pointed up the “importance of interventions aimed at increasing social engagement" during future times of isolation. 
  • Local mental health officials say the study confirms a trend they have seen, of an increase in depression among clients.

The study's authors said, "We sought to understand whether individuals residing in communities with diminished social interaction experienced greater levels of depression."

They concluded that there was a definite association: "We found that depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with an element of local environment, namely the extent to which people in a community leave home. Neither COVID-19-related restrictions nor recent COVID-19 activity explained this association," they wrote. "While we cannot determine causation, the potential importance of interventions aimed at increasing social engagement during times of limited mobility merits consideration for future pandemics or other long-term disasters."

Other recent studies have indicated a rise in depression in the midst of the pandemic and survey respondents' concerns about it. For instance, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released earlier this year, based on 2020 data, found that young adults (ages 18 to 24) nationwide were diagnosed as depressed at the highest rate, at 21.5%; while those ages 65 and up had the lowest rate, at 14.2%.

And a Long Island Health Collaborative annual survey, released this year, found that 39% of Suffolk County respondents cited "mental health depression/suicide" as their biggest personal health concerns, though that was not in the top five health concerns for Nassau County survey respondents. 

Victoria Del Vecchio, 53, of Central Islip, said she became so depressed during the pandemic that she considered taking her own life. She got sick with COVID-19 in September 2020, had to quarantine at home, and eventually lost her job as a dental assistant and her apartment as the illness lingered.

“It really had a huge effect on me,” she said. "It was the isolation.”

She eventually got help at the new Stony Brook Medicine Post-COVID Clinic in Lake Grove, where she has been attending the “Long Haul COVID Support Group” for the past two months.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” she said. “No one was really comprehending it the way that they do there.”

Brian Morales is still dealing with depressive symptoms, not from isolation during the pandemic shutdown, but from contracting COVID-19 in the early weeks of the virus' spread in the United States in March 2020. Morales, 31, of Elmhurst, Queens, said he developed depression in May 2020 after emerging from a coma after a month-and-a-half, during which he said he had to be intubated.

After he was released from the hospital after a two-month stay, Morales said family support was critical: "I was traumatized. I had PTSD. I couldn't be alone in my room. A lot of thoughts came to my mind," including thoughts he described as "very scary, very frightening. It made me think about what's going to be next. The only thing that helped me out was my family. My mom was next to me the whole time."

In the years since, his condition has improved, Morales said, but is not completely eradicated. "I still do need to see the psychologists." He said the flashbacks of that traumatic time have receded. Now, he said, "I always try to keep my mind busy, going to the gym, going out with my family, watching comedies. It was very traumatizing. I was literally facing death." But now he focuses on "wonderful moments yet to come."

Local mental health experts said the study is in line with their own experience with patients during the pandemic and its aftermath.

Dr. Thomas Gut, associate chair of medicine and medical director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital, part of the Northwell Health network, said the study's conclusions "highlights just how much of a long-term crisis this COVID pandemic has created for us, and will continue to create for us after this pandemic has dampened."

Because of the pandemic lockdowns, Gut noted, "People weren't going to the gym. They weren't going to the movies. They weren't going to dinner … They didn't have their normal routines in place to preserve and strengthen their mental health and physical well-being." And that, Gut said, promoted isolation.

Colleen Merlo, chief executive of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, said, "We need human connection." 

"Some people were isolated alone," Merlo said, leading some to develop "depressive symptoms, of people feeling sad and alone."

Merlo said the COVID pandemic was a "traumatic experience … As much as we all want to get to a pre-COVID normal, if we don't take time to slow down and heal, we're right back in it, perpetuating trauma."

With Bart Jones

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Victoria Del Vecchio.

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