Psychology Professors Find Negative Effects of Social Distancing, Stay-at-Home Orders

There has been a lot of discussion over the past several months on the effects of social distancing. Many have found that these measures, while vital to preserving physical health, have negative impacts on our mental and emotional well-being.

This moment in history puts everyone in a unique and totally unprecedented situation. Recognizing this, two professors in the Psychology Department of the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, Brett Marroquín, Ph.D. and Máire Ford, Ph.D., have independently conducted research on the psychological effects of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. As Professor Ford explained, previous studies have primarily researched “more personally meaningful and hurtful types of rejection,” which may have different effects than our current “mandated isolation.” The connection between mental health and mandated isolation is explored in a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research by Professor Marroquín, as well as in Ford’s recent “Liberal Arts in Action” presentation.

Although Marroquín and Ford each suspected their research results would support the assumption that social isolation has its risks, even they were surprised by the severity of social distancing’s effects, especially those caused by “impersonal mandated sort of social isolation.” Their studies have reinforced, with empirical evidence, how important social relationships are to one’s well-being. Marroquín calls them “essential to mental health,” and points out that “our findings do not suggest that people should socially distance less, but rather that they should attend to their mental health so that they can cope better with social distancing as we, as a community, respond to COVID-19.”

Both professors looked at the mental health consequences of social isolation, but narrowed their focus to different areas. Marroquín’s research is presented in the study “Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects of Stay-at-Home Policies, Social Distancing Behavior, and Social Resources.” Along with his research assistant, Reed Morgan ‘20,  Marroquín first conducted a three-day online survey in March 2020 of 435 participants from 46 states. From the data, Marroquín analyzed how both the private practice of “personal distancing” and government imposed “stay-at-home orders” affected participants’ mental health symptoms.

Although probably not surprising for most readers, Marroquín’s findings were nonetheless sobering: 27.4 percent of participants were experiencing at least mild depression; mild symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) were experienced by 22.8 percent of participants, moderate symptoms by 15.6 percent, and severe symptoms by 9 percent; and 38.6 percent of participants were experiencing insomnia symptoms. Levels of symptoms were higher when people engaged in more personal distancing behavior, and when they were under state stay-at-home orders. Having more social support was associated with fewer symptoms, but it did not have strong enough of an effect to eliminate the social distancing effects.

Ford recognized that much of the research on social isolation focused on elderly populations, and this inspired her to conduct her own study of undergraduate students, which she presented in a Liberal Arts in Action webinar titled “COVID-19 and Social Isolation.” In late March and April, Ford ran a research study looking at the response of undergraduate students to social isolation. Participants filled out a research diary each evening for three days, recording their level of social distancing for the day and measures of psychological, interpersonal and physical well-being.

Sophomore biology major Halley Dante and Gavriella Rubin, a graduate student in the Yoga Studies program, assisted Ford with processing data from the study’s participants. The research revealed that higher levels of social distancing were correlated with a more negative mood, coping less well with stressors, a day being more poorly rated, less healthy behaviors, more daily physical illness symptoms, lower perception of social support, and being less likely to use technology to connect. The lack of motivation to connect virtually suggests a self-perpetuating loop, in which social isolation leads to further social withdrawal.  The manuscript summarizing this study is currently under peer review at a psychological journal.

COVID-19 and social distancing rules and procedures are far from over, and the professors’ work on the subject is continuing as well. Marroquín’s team continues to track participants’ symptoms, having conducted a survey in July with another planned for October. Professor Ford is working with senior psychology major Brianna Absalon and sophomore psychology major Maxine Boyd to further develop her research by testing processes similar to those collected from her daily diary study in a lab setting.  They are also investigating personality factors that might be associated with better/worse coping in the face of social isolation.

In light of the epidemic and their findings, Marroquín and Ford reinforce how vital it is for everyone, especially young people, to find safe alternatives to satisfy their social needs. In her presentation, Ford pointed out that “the World Health Organization has been calling for a change in terms from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing,’” and encouraged students to socialize in safe ways.

As the pandemic wears on, Ford offers several concrete suggestions for preserving mental health. “Increase opportunities for social connection through the use of technology; reach out to one’s support networks and accept help from friends, neighbors, and from professionals such as therapists; try to change maladaptive thought patterns that might interfere with effective coping or that might lead to decrements in psychological and physical well-being, such as pessimistic and fearful thinking; and engage in behaviors that will serve to boost mental and physical well-being (e.g., exercise, a practice of spirituality or gratitude, getting the proper amount of sleep),” says Ford.

In this moment of immense physical, social, and psychological stress, the world’s focus on the biological effects of COVID-19 can obscure the psychological and emotional toll the pandemic has also inflicted. Through their research, Marroquín and Ford are helping to keep top of mind that we must be just as vigilant about our psychological health as we are about our physical health.  “We need to behave in a safe manner (physical distancing) while still maintaining social connections,” urges Ford. Marroquín’s findings also emphasize the importance of social support: “Our study found that even though having social support to rely on doesn’t wipe out all negative effects of distancing, it still has a strong, protective effect against symptoms. This suggests that as we all cope with physical distancing, reaching out to others for support — and reaching out to support people we know are vulnerable — can help combat the negative impact on mental health.”

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Professor Máire Ford
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Professor Brett Marroquín