The Science Behind Social Isolation Effects on Mental Health & Substance Abuse in Young People

“No man is an island.” John Donne wrote these words in 1624, centuries before “coronavirus” or “social distancing” would surface as some of the defining concepts of our age. But these simple words still resonate with us today: We are all connected and part of each other. To explore this, we’ll look at the science behind social isolation’s effects on mental health and substance abuse in young people.

This is one of the many reasons that humans, as inherently social creatures, struggle so much with isolation during this time. Unable to physically be with friends or family (or even in the company of complete strangers while we go about our daily lives), it is more difficult than ever to nourish our need for connection.  

If you’re feeling more anxious or down right now, your reaction is normal and you are not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress during pandemics can sometimes cause the following:  

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, your financial situation or job, or loss of support services you rely on 
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns 
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating 
  • Worsening of chronic health problems 
  • Worsening of mental health conditions
  • Increased use of tobacco, and/or alcohol and other substances

As you can see, this stress can manifest physically, emotionally, and mentally. For adults, it is a challenge, but for younger people, the impact can be even more profound. 

Social Isolation’s Effects on Adolescence: What Parents Need to Know 

During adolescence (ages 10-24), people need more social interaction than ever, especially from peer groups. “This reorientation towards peers facilitates young people’s development into independent adults, enabling them to foster a more complete sense of social self-identity, at the same time as building stronger affiliations with their peer group,” according to research by Pfiefer and Berkman.  

This social interaction is a key to brain development – during this time, adolescents’ brains are changing and growing in ways to support the higher cognitive function needed for adulthood, according to research by Orben, Tomova, and Blakemore, and their research suggests that social isolation effects may be particularly “profound” for this group. 

Adolescents can also be vulnerable to mental health issues during this time, with “75% of adults who have ever had a mental health condition reporting that they first experienced symptoms before the age of 24.” Negative situations, like bullying, peer rejection, and loneliness can exacerbate these issues, while positive situations like high-quality peer relationships can protect against them. 

Another study finds that “young people who are lonely might be as much as three times more likely to develop depression in the future, and that the impact of loneliness on mental health could last for at least 9 years.” This stress can lead to increased substance abuse. Looking at past traumatic events, like Hurricane Katrina, provides some perspective: According to the CDC, hospitalization rates for substance use disorders rose by 35 percent three years after the hurricane, compared to the year before the storm. 

How Parents Can Help  

This information isn’t presented to be alarming, but rather, to educate and empower. It may even be a relief to some parents that their child’s continuous need for social contact is a completely natural part of growing up (and not simply annoyance at having to be around adults!). And, if there are ways to help your child de-stress and socialize more, you can help improve their overall wellbeing. 

Try some of these steps to help your child deal with this tumultuous time: 

Facilitate real-life social interaction 

As Embark Behavioral Health’s Devin Maroney, LMSW at Cabin John in Maryland recently reminded us, young people often don’t have the skills or abilities (like driving) to make hangouts happen. As the parent, can you help coordinate safe interactions between your child and their friends’ parents to try and get them as much face time as possible? Perhaps you can organize a backyard hangout, where everyone is masked and the kids bring their own snacks and beverages to keep things simple and safe. 

Be flexible about time spent on devices 

Speaking of “face time,” research suggests that video calls, text messages, and even interactions on social media can help mitigate isolation and loneliness. If your child is spending more time than ever on their devices, remember that they’re having to substitute normal peer interactions with digital contact. For example, the Pew Research Center found that adolescents aged 13–17 reported that technologies like social media make them feel more connected with their friends (81% of 743 respondents), help them interact with more diverse groups of people (69%), and allow them to access social support during tough times (68%). 

Get those endorphins going  

Regular exercise is another effective way to boost happiness and mitigate the effects of stress. And it doesn’t have to be an intense cardio session: even a simple walk around the block can help. Start with Mayo Clinic’s recommendation: “Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference.” 

Spend time in nature 

If you can, bring the whole family to more natural settings. Aim for an environment like the beach, parks, forests, mountains – places where city or suburban noise and congestion are replaced with a more “wild” setting. Research suggests that “nature-based recreation has a strong potential to improve mental health outcomes in areas of general well-being, resilience, restoration, and cognition, with some potential for decreasing symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression.”  

Follow your child’s passions 

By the time your child has reached adolescence, they have started to establish their likes and interests. Even if, let’s say, video games or playing an instrument aren’t your strong suits, you can participate as a curious, non-judgmental observer or participant. Quality time together helps them feel connected and validated (even if it’s a little out of your wheelhouse). 

Validate their feelings 

One of the most powerful ways we can support people who are suffering is to simply validate their emotions and experiences. Remember that teens and young adults are experiencing losses that adults might not, such as major milestones (graduations, getting a driver’s license, going to prom) and the subsequent disappointment of missing out. They may be worried about growing apart from friends, being uncertain about the future (such as college or learning a trade), and whether or not their goals will be attainable. Remember to be patient and tolerant, allowing them to vent. Sometimes, simply saying “I understand why you feel that way, it really is disappointing,” goes a long way. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help 

There are many other ways to help mitigate stress and help preteens, teens, and young adults deal with the stress and impact of social isolation effects. The CDC has many resources for parents and even more recommendations for how to help during this time. 

If you’ve noticed sudden changes in your child’s behaviors and are worried about their mental health or possible substance abuse issues, it may be time to consult a mental health provider. Individual treatment, as well as family therapy, can help everyone deal with these changes in the family system. In fact, involving the family unit can increase the effectiveness of treatment, because it supports the family system as a whole and helps the family become a potential source of help and change. This is one of the many reasons Embark Behavioral Health focuses on holistic treatment of both individual clients and their families.  

At the end of the day, remember Donne’s words: None of us is an island, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” We can all get through this, together. 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit