Kelly wasn’t what you’d call a people person. Work breaks were taken far from the lunchroom and weekends were spent alone in front of the TV. Happy pills and alcohol made up the majority of Kelly’s evenings. After all, who wants to bother with other people and their problems anyway? Besides, Kelly was born with a degenerative spinal condition. Getting around in a wheelchair just wasn’t worth the effort.
Humans are social animals. Interacting in supportive relationships is an integral part of good mental health. But Kelly’s disability may be intensified by an even worse ailment: social isolation.
What is social isolation?
Social isolation is the result of a lack of social connections and having few people to interact with. And while you can live alone and not feel lonely or isolated, you can feel lonely while being with other people. What’s the difference?
Loneliness is a natural and common feeling for most of us at one point or another. We occasionally feel alone or separated from friends and loved ones. That feeling usually moves us to reach out to our loved ones and interact. Usually, we would expect that interest to be reciprocated by those that love us.
But social isolation is a much more acute condition. People that have experienced extended periods of loneliness, or have embraced a lifestyle devoid of close contact with others, may suffer from this condition. People suffering from social isolation may reject the interest and invitations of others and prefer to live in their loneliness. And it’s dangerous. The National Institute on Aging says that social isolation can lead to higher risks for depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. And social isolation is also much more prevalent among people like Kelly. Why?
How can a disability lead to social isolation?
In the case of people with disabilities, social isolation is often the result of social neglect, ableism, and/or a self-deprecating self-image. Social neglect is often the result of innocent ignorance on the part of others. Some, even among friends and family, have trouble understanding people living with disabilities. Put frankly, they may feel awkward or confused, guilty or fragile, and be unable to see past the visible characteristics of a person with a significant disability. As a result, they start to avoid them. In the workplace, assumptions that a person with a disability is unable to carry out a given job can keep them from interacting with more coworkers.
When social neglect becomes severe, it can become ableism. Ableism is a form of discrimination when people openly prefer the company of able-bodied people. This set of beliefs devalues people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. This harmful way of thinking can lead to prejudice and discrimination. People living with disabilities are often denied opportunities and community interaction.
In the workplace, this can lead to employers and coworkers depriving the company of valuable skills. “I have learned that a person with a physical disability can do far more than one would give credit for.” Says Linda Trembley, a project manager for Bona Fide Conglomerate, a non-profit maintenance company that primarily employs people with disabilities. “You must give people an opportunity to demonstrate their skills to you.”
But the most hurtful cause of social isolation can be a poor self-image. It may be that we cannot control how people think of us. But believing in ourselves is integral to dealing with challenges in our lives. If our self-confidence is undermined by circumstances beyond our control, we may lose hope of having happiness in our lives.
As children, we make an early start of making comparisons to ourselves and others. For children living with disabilities, it can be painfully obvious that they are unable to be a part of certain activities. For adults with impairments, it’s a reflex to make the same types of comparisons. This can be very discouraging. Adults with disabilities may not get the same invitations from their coworkers. They may not be able to attend gatherings because of accessibility issues.
Besides, feeling different and limited can make socializing exhausting. Being treated as different can be awkward even if people have the best of intentions. Over time, receiving invitations can feel more like a burden than an opportunity for recreation. How can a person cope with these feelings?
Tips for coping with social isolation from Bona Fide Conglomerate
Bona Fide employs over 70 people living and working with significant disabilities. Their project managers recommend basic foundational habits that help keep everyone healthy and productive:
Follow a good sleep routine. According to Northwestern University, poor sleep habits can increase depression and anxiety. Maintaining consistent rest and wake times is key to maintaining a healthy mental outlook.
Do the little things to start the day. Take a shower and put on clean clothes. Make your bed if possible. Starting every day fresh and accomplishing your first task sets the tone for your outlook. And according to Psychology today, bed makers are often more successful.
Establish and follow a routine. This is different for everyone, but routines provide structure and purpose to your day. This simple principle can combat feelings of worthlessness and helplessness associated with depression.
Stay in touch. Whether it’s friends, family, or even your neighbor, set a time in your routine to reach out. Even simple text messages can remind people that you’re thinking of them. Sending letters or cards is another thoughtful way to nurture relationships.
Consider adopting a pet. Animals can be a great source of comfort and help lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Stay as physically active as possible. This can be a challenge depending on the nature of a disability. But physical exercise provides a host of benefits, both physical and mental.
Consider a faith-based organization or community event resource. Although religion might not be for everyone, the health benefits are well-documented. Having a community, a positive message and a shared purpose are all indicators of long and healthy lives. Alternatively, local libraries and community centers host group activities that you can participate in.
Reach out to coworkers or caregivers. While you may never be best friends with your coworkers or caregivers, nurturing a friendly atmosphere can improve your daily experiences.
Consider virtual counseling. If the above tips seem overwhelming or unhelpful, or if you feel anxious or depressed and become negative about maintaining relationships, remember that there are many support options available through a simple google search for virtual counseling. The most important part of counseling is learning interventions that work for your personal situation. Don’t allow yourself to suffer unnecessarily.
During Covid-19 many of us learned the negative effects of social isolation. But as the world opens back up and attempts to return to a sense of normalcy, remember that friends and coworkers living with disabilities may have been dealing with social isolation for much longer. And they may not be looking forward to returning to a social world.
If you know anyone that may be facing this type of situation, a kind word or text message reminding them that they are welcome and appreciated can go a long way. Remember, our quality of life in today’s world relies, not on our differences, but on what makes us the same. Our society depends on a shared belief in common humanity and a willingness to support it when we can.