What Are the Effects of Loneliness and Social Isolation on Severe Mental Health?

We may underestimate the distressing effects of social isolation. Studies have revealed that loneliness contributes to severe mental health disorders—not to mention the potential lack of care and support when people suffer in isolation. When these people find help, a community treatment environment can help to reverse patterns of isolation while offering comprehensive therapeutic care.

The feeling of loneliness is a subjective one. It can come from the lifestyle and conditions in which someone lives. It can come from a person’s inner landscape and the state of their mental and emotional health. In either of these cases, loneliness can be especially distressing and a very slippery slope if a person doesn’t have supportive people in their life who can help them reconnect and find the care they need. Even when someone chooses a life of social isolation and seems to thrive under these conditions, it’s a lifestyle which can alter their mental, emotional, and social functioning over time.

Ultimately, the direct and indirect impacts of isolation pose serious risks to one’s mental health. In a direct sense, the experience of social isolation stimulates negative perspective and behaviors, which can intensify over time. In an indirect sense, a lack of support—whether real or perceived—can prevent or undermine treatment outcomes. The effects of social isolation on severe mental health urge our awareness and responsiveness when we know that people are suffering.

How Do We Experience the Effects of Social Isolation?

When we look closely, isolation isn’t necessarily a measure of how many hours a person spends alone or how many friends and other connections they have. The phenomenon of social isolation just isn’t as simple as being alone. In fact, it’s possible for someone to be and feel isolated even when they are in the presence of other people. Let’s look at some of the ways that isolation can manifest for different people:

  • Physical isolation can happen when someone lives in a remote area or otherwise has limited interactions with other people in their home life and throughout their days.
  • Emotional isolation can but doesn’t necessarily depend on the actual state of being alone. Emotional isolation could be imposed upon someone—as in the case of an emotionally abusive, psychologically abusive, or neglectful relationship. It could also be self-imposed, intentionally or unintentionally, if someone is unwilling or unable to invest energy in emotional connections.
  • Psychological isolation can be a complicated situation if someone is mentally disconnected from their own identity and personality or from their reality and the people around them.
  • Rejection or ostracization are acts that purposely isolate a person. The experience of social isolation imposed by others likely comes with additional feelings of shame, pain, and other emotional trauma.
  • A virtual lifestyle is becoming more and more common as people depend on Internet socialization over in-person relationships. A consistent psychological effect of all-virtual interactions is debatable, but there are certainly important aspects of human communication and relationships that are missing from purely virtual interactions.

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How Does Social Isolation Have an Effect on Severe Mental Health?

It’s true that loneliness itself is not considered a clinical mental health disorder. But its close connection with our well-being makes it very worthy of our attention. To put it simply, isolation breeds more isolation. Researchers have observed that persistent loneliness can inspire:

  • A self-preservation mentality and behaviors
  • Fixation on negative thoughts and outcomes
  • Hyper-vigilance toward social threats whether they are present or not
  • Heightened stress and anxiety responses
  • Poor sleep quality if hypervigilance continues

These effects of social isolation can weigh heavily on one’s mood, their perspective, their ability to cope with stress, and perhaps their very sense of self. In the context of social isolation, it is not always a simple and straightforward path of mental health decline. But it does tend to be progressive, especially as mental health disorders develop. Researchers Louise C. Hawkley and John T. Cacioppo have studied “the breadth of emotional and cognitive processes and outcomes that seem susceptible to the influence of loneliness”:

Loneliness has been associated with personality disorders and psychoses, suicide, impaired cognitive performance and cognitive decline over time, increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, diminished executive control, and increases in depressive symptoms.

And the effect of social isolation and severe mental health disorders also significantly impairs treatment access and recovery outcomes. The absence of caring and supportive relationships makes it less likely that someone will connect with treatment options in the first place or that they will be able to maintain recovery progress following treatment. And those who live in social isolation due to personal withdrawal may be less likely to seek or accept treatment. These limitations, on top of the detrimental negative effects of loneliness, can lead to severe and often unaddressed psychological distress.

What Does This Assessment of Isolation and Mental Health Mean for Treatment Outcomes?

The primary concern surrounding mental health disorders that advance in social isolation is that the individuals will not receive the treatment they urgently need. It is often the case for people in psychological distress that a family member or friend helps them to access the best treatment. If the nature of someone’s isolation prevents this access, they could be in danger of further mental health decline and intense suffering.

Another concern is that people who do enter treatment may not have the social support system they need to succeed—especially on the other side of a treatment stay. It could be detrimental to leave a treatment program and return to a life of isolation. Hence, treatment is as much about developing a context for recovery as it is about applying therapeutic methods.

Comprehensive treatment centers are often designed around a welcoming community environment. Clients can work with clinicians at their own pace, developing a trusting relationship over time. Peer groups and activities allow clients space and time to discover ways in which they can relate to each other. Ultimately, these peer relationships become a very powerful part of the recovery journey. People who have been isolated in the past begin to break down walls of loneliness and rigid self-preservation. At the same time, structured programs invite family and friends to get involved in the treatment process. Through education and the development of coping strategies and positive relationship dynamics, a lasting support system is built.

Before progress can be made, people who need mental health treatment must get connected. Each one of us can expand our awareness to have a care for those who suffer in social isolation. The conditions of loneliness and isolation themselves are stigmatizing, but only through a close-minded view. We all share a need for human care and connection, and we can open our minds and hearts to those who need to rediscover that path.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.