Understanding Isolation-Induced Depression

Depression, as we are referring to it, is not a feeling. It is a diagnosis of a psychological condition and is actually called “depressive disorder”. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) depression, “involves recurrent, severe periods of clear-cut changes in mood, thought processes and motivation lasting for a minimum of two weeks.“ There are many factors that contribute to depression.

Isolation-induced depression is caused by a lack of social interaction. It is not isolation by conscious choice. It also requires an extended period of isolation, although how long this is depends on the individual and other factors. Isolation-induced depression has a very specific cause.

Situational depression occurs, as the name implies, when something specific has occurred. It might be the death of a family member or spouse or loss of a job. This type of depression is remedied by resolution of the situation. Getting a new job, for example. In the meantime, interventions including counseling and medication are common. When it relates to a death, time and allowance for grieving often resolve the depressive episode.

Clinical depression is caused by combinations of genetics, altered brain chemistry, and/or general stress. This type of depression is usually chronic, occurring throughout a person’s life or through multiple episodes over time. Behavior modification and coping strategies are important, but usually requires some combination of counseling and medication to satisfactorily address

All types of depression can be significant and
harmful to the individual, regardless of the underlying cause

When a person doesn’t have a strong support system and spends a lot of time alone, isolation-induced depression can occur. Older adults may experience a variety of challenges that contribute to isolation-induced depression, including living alone, limited mobility due to health or physical limitations, lack of transportation options, living in rural areas, and limited financial resources.

isolation = physical
loneliness = psychological

It is also possible to experience perceived isolation. This is feeling isolated when you aren’t physically alone. This can have the same negative consequences., so it is important to assess whether a person is experiencing isolation-induced depression even if they live in a group setting or seem to be engaged with others. If a person feels they are isolated, the effects are just as debilitating as physically being isolated.

There are several reasons why this can occur. Some can be addressed by the individual or through counseling and assistance. Unfortunately, others are outside the person’s control and difficult to change. They include:

  • Lack of appropriate social skills
  • Cultural differences
  • Unfamiliarity with customs, processes or expectations of the group
  • Racism
  • Gender-bias, including based on self-identity, and orientation
  • Physical, mental or developmental disability

Social isolation is a physical situation that can occur by choice and can be short or long-term. A person may consciously choose to not be around others, like working to finish a project or taking an extended backcountry trip by yourself. Relatively short-term isolation that is not by a person’s choice is also possible. This might be caused by seasonal weather and weather-related disasters. A heavy winter snow in a rural area or floods caused by rain. These unintentional situations are extremely stressful, but usually short-lived. Intentional and/or temporary isolation are not the same as isolation-induced depression.

An example of an event that cause numerous cases of isolation-induced depression was the 2020 Covid-19 (corona virus) pandemic. It was a public health crisis that was unintentional, undesired, and lasted longer than two weeks. The world seemed to change overnight. With relatively no notice, stay-at-home orders were given and remained in effect for more than a month in many places. Stores were cleaned out of items like toilet paper. Non-essential businesses closed. No one knew what was going to happen, how things might change, when it would be lifted, how many lives would be lost, and some questioned if food and medication would be available. For seniors living alone who were not able to leave their homes, with limited resources and limited social supports, it was very scary. It caused a significant number of depressive episodes, especially in older adults.

These are the circumstances in which a person may experience isolation-induced depression, which is different than depression from other causes. Depression is a psychological condition. It is more than feeling sad. Simply growing older should not make a person sad. Depression is not directly an age-related condition. Other factors may make older people more likely to experience isolation-induced depression, however, so understanding it and knowing what to look for are important.

Isolation-Induced Depression pages on this site
Isolation-induced Depression Home | Understanding | Identifying | Effects | Other Effects | Preventing
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Disclaimer: Information is for general education purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical or therapeutic advice. It is provided as a courtesy only. No content on the ICOA website, social media platforms, e-mail communications or links therein should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician