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Social Isolation and Depression: Effects & Definition

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  • 0:02 Defining Depression
  • 1:25 Social Isolation
  • 2:47 Causes of Social Isolation
  • 3:35 Effects
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Science has shown a significant link between depression and social isolation. Learn about depression and the condition of social isolation and how they are related in this lesson, then test your understanding of the topic with a quiz.

Defining Depression

Throughout our lives, most of us can expect to experience mood changes and periods of sadness, such as the grief we feel when we lose a family member, friend, home, or job. However, when psychologists talk about depression, they're most likely speaking of major depressive disorder, which is far more debilitating and severe than a bout with the blues.

Major depressive disorder is the clinical diagnostic term for depression that doesn't correct itself naturally with time, such as when a person has multiple symptoms for over two weeks without feeling better.

Some of the symptoms of major depressive disorder include:

  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Dramatic changes in eating and sleeping
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feeling helpless or worthless
  • Inability to concentrate, make decisions, and think clearly
  • Lack of interest in activities and people once enjoyed
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Weight loss or gain

According to figures provided by the National Institute for Mental Health in 2012, approximately 6.9% of the adult population, or 16 million Americans, had experienced one or more major depressive episode within the previous year. This statistic took into consideration individuals 18 years of age or older.

Social Isolation

There are many contributing factors associated with depression, including those related to family, friends, health and levels of activity, exercise, and nutrition. Social isolation is also a contributing factor.

Social isolation can be defined as a continual lack of contact with other people. The importance of social support in relationship to depression can be seen in Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, developed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. Most often represented in pyramid form, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a psychological model used to identify the five basic human needs, including physiological, safety, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological needs, located at the base of the pyramid, include food, water, sleep, and physical contact, while employment, family, and health contribute to the next tier of the pyramid, our safety needs. Above our physiological and safety needs, we find our social needs, typically associated with family, friends, and love. If you think about it, almost every level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs benefits from or requires social interactions with others. These interactions provide us with a sense of belonging, intimacy, and support.

Causes of Social Isolation

Age and illness often lead to social isolation. For instance, the elderly often experience a loss of family and friends, even spouses, while patients undergoing cancer treatments may feel too sick to go out. Emotional, intellectual, and physical disabilities can also contribute to isolation in that affected individuals may find themselves feeling self-conscious or shunned by others in a social situation. Social isolation can also be found in children who have a difficult time making friends at school.

In the socially isolated, these factors often compound each other; a major illness can lead to depression and the other way around. Alternatively, major illness can lead to social isolation, which in turn, leads to depression.

Effects

So what happens when someone doesn't have his or her social needs met and experiences depression, loneliness, and stress? Unlike a cut, bruise, or broken bone, we can't see stress hormones, so their effects are subtle and accumulate over time. Depression and social isolation can have physical consequences such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep issues.

Children and young adults may experience learning difficulties. As a type of stress, loneliness can cause depression in children and is often associated with school dropouts. Adults who are lonely are more likely to abuse alcohol or have additional health problems.

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