Is the Term Social Distancing a Misnomer with Unintended Consequences?

Is the Term Social Distancing a Misnomer with Unintended Consequences?

Until March, the Coronavirus was a topic I paid only scant attention to when it appeared in televised news segments or popped up on my news feed. It still felt distant to me, a flu-like illness that had paralyzed the city of Wuhan, but something that would be certainly be contained in China, if not Asia. Vague memories of other outbreaks crossed my mind; H1-N1, SARS, MERS and Ebola, killer viruses that I knew wreaked havoc in other parts of the world but never touched my life personally. But then it hit home when my daughter’s semester abroad was abruptly cancelled, and the directive was given to her – you have 48 hours to leave Spain.

Fast forward a mere 10 days. It is almost unfathomable how much life has changed in America. Our daily routines, activities, and interactions have been affected. A curious amalgam of work, school and homelife has emerged for many households. Those that live alone have been forced to acquire new skills with restaurants closed. The washing of hands may have never been done with such frequency and vigor! And new expressions such as “social distancing”, “self-quarantine”, and “shelter in place” are now staples in our vernacular.

But what exactly does “social distancing” mean? The CDC defines social distancing as remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.(https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/risk-assessment.html)

However, this combination of words is confusing. In fact, it doesn’t seem appropriate if you consider each word separately. Social refers to the need for companionship while distance is the amount of space between two people or things. To contain the spread of the Coronavirus/COVID-19, we need to physically distance ourselves from each other, not socially distance ourselves.

Humans are social creatures and have a biological need for interaction. From Maslow’s hierarchy to more current research we know that our need to be connected and establish healthy bonds is as essential to our emotional and physical well beings as food and safety. (Barnes, Carvallo, Brown & Osterman, p. 1149, 2010). In other words, it is normal and necessary to socialize. Although, this becomes more challenging in the current environment when 50% of Americans are hunkered down in their homes, it may be exasperated by using a term that is confusing and quite literally wrong.

The collective mental health of our community will be compromised if we don’t ensure there are outlets for social interaction despite the mandatory requirements for keeping physically apart. It is normal to be experiencing feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and despair in the wake of a pandemic. Talking about these feelings is a healthy way of processing them. However, if social distancing is misinterpreted to mean social isolation, community members who already live alone and/or are lonely plus those who suffer from behavioral illnesses, could be at increased risk. Research has linked social isolation to higher risks for both physical and mental conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks).

Teletherapy is a solution for those who are feeling the effects of social isolation. Tri-County Health Network offers teletherapy services to our community members. Teletherapy is the delivery of therapy through a secure, live video connection over the internet – think Skype with a therapist. Teletherapy can take place in the comfort of your own home. Additionally, during this COVID-19 public health emergency, the Department of Health and Human Services has relaxed HIPAA laws so that teletherapy can be delivered through a variety of non-public facing audio or video communication products.

Should you not have access to the internet, a computer or a smartphone, teletherapy is still available to you! The Tri-County Health Network can provide you equipment and wi-fi hotspots for you to take advantage of teletherapy. Teletherapy is free for students and staff at participating schools. If you are over the age of 50, the first 6 sessions are free thanks to a grant from the NextFifty Initiative. For all other community members, scholarships for teletherapy are currently available thanks to generous donations from community members through Colorado Gives – you can access services for free – while monies are available.

Tri-County Health Network’s goal is for you to be and feel cared for. Please don’t let the term Social Distancing allow you to remove yourself completely from others; it simply means keeping 6 feet of space between you and others. Call Tri-County Health Network today at 970.708.7096 to begin ‘socializing’ with someone who can help you cope during this crisis.


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