The COVID-19 pandemic has been a traumatic event to many teens with social isolation being one outcome for some. For example, Luis was a senior in high school when the pandemic started. All his second semester senior year classes were completed online. Luis was also a point guard on his school’s basketball team. The team won their regional tournament, and they were heading to sectionals which were scheduled for the weekend that “the world shut down.”  From that point forward, Luis and his friends lost the opportunity to possibly take their school to a state tournament for the first time in its history. They lost day-to-day in-person connections with others. They lost their prom. They lost their graduation. They lost their summer of activities together. Online gaming and social media took over for social interaction. Luis was given a scholarship to an out-of-state D1 university. In the fall of that year, he moved into his dorm room at the university, still doing his classes online because the university was still shut down for social distancing. Luis didn’t know any other freshmen, so would stay in his room most often, completing his homework or playing video games. His roommate ended up not moving in that semester since he lived in-state and decided to stay home to save money. Luis was socially isolated.

Social isolation occurs when there is a lack of connection between an individual and society. Social isolation (voluntary or involuntary, short- or long-term) can impact an individual’s mental health, which is what happened with Luis. Luis began to experience a deep loneliness which turned into depression. The lack of connectivity also led Luis to become anxious around other people when small opportunities to do so presented themselves. By December of his freshmen year, Luis, who had always been an easy-going, extroverted adolescent, called his parents crying and begged to come home. His parents realized from that call that this was not the typical homesickness that many freshmen encounter. This was Luis crying out for help because he didn’t have the skills to navigate this experience. 

To understand what Luis was going through, let’s define what social isolation is. Social Isolation can be thought of in three different ways:

  • Physical Social Isolation – This is the action of being physically separated from others. 
  • Loneliness – This is a feeling. Feelings try to tell us something. Loneliness is trying to tell us that we are not meaningfully connected with others and it’s trying to motivate us to do something different. Feelings of loneliness are different from depression but can lead to depression if not addressed.
  • Social Isolation (not seen) – This is also an action; however, you are in the presence of others but not being interacted with or ignored intentionally.

Luis was dealing with physical social isolation along with intense loneliness which turned into depression and anxiety due to the lack of meaningful connections over an extensive period. For someone like Luis, an easy-going and extroverted guy, this was new territory. He had never dealt with these types of emotions and didn’t know how to handle them or where to turn. He felt shame and guilt that he couldn’t deal with all the changes that had happened. Knowing him as well as they did, his parents immediately agreed to him coming home although they set some expectations for him to meet with a counselor and to develop a care plan that would address the social isolation which seemed to be the root cause of many of the issues.