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Social Isolation: Definition, Causes & Effects

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  • 0:03 Social Isolation: Definition
  • 1:28 Causes of Social Isolation
  • 3:15 Effects
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that social isolation is both a cause and a symptom of several mental illnesses? In this lesson, you'll learn about social isolation, its causes, and its effects.

Social Isolation: Definition

Lisa is a 23-year-old female who spends most of her time at home watching television. She works from her home as a medical transcriptionist, which requires her to type up dictation from doctors. She orders most of her food and supplies over the Internet, and she has them shipped to her house. She also has no friends, does not participate in any social activities, and has very little contact with other people. The few times that she has attempted to make social connections have not worked very well. For example, her attempt at small talk with her neighbor ended when Lisa made an inappropriate statement about hygiene. The only regular contact she has is a weekly phone call from her mother. Lisa is experiencing social isolation.

Social isolation is defined as having little or no contact with other people. It usually lasts for extended periods of time. Social isolation is different from loneliness, in that loneliness is a state of emotion that is felt by individuals who are not satisfied with their social connections. Therefore, a person who is experiencing social isolation does not always experience loneliness, especially in cases where social isolation is voluntary. In addition, loneliness can also be temporary, whereas social isolation can lasts anywhere from a few weeks to years.

Causes of Social Isolation

There are several causes of social isolation. Some people voluntarily choose to isolate themselves from others. For example, an eccentric person may choose to have very little contact with other people. However, in most cases, social isolation is involuntary.

Social isolation can be caused by physical disabilities or illnesses, such as cancer and muscular dystrophy. As the illness begins to take over more and more of a person's life, there may be a change in social relationships. Family members and friends may start to spend less time with the affected individual, or the individual may begin to pull away from others. Social isolation is especially common in individuals who suffer from conditions that are stigmatized, such as HIV/AIDS.

Advanced age can also lead to social isolation. As we get older, our health and mobility decline, and our social roles change. Our living arrangements may also change. For instance, physical living conditions and barriers, such as living in a rural area away from other people, can lead to social isolation.

Individuals with developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, or neurological disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome, may have underdeveloped social skills, trouble communicating with others, and problems understanding social cues. As a result, they may avoid contact with others out of shame, embarrassment, or fear. Others might also avoid contact with these individuals, and this can cause social isolation.

Social isolation is involved in several mental illnesses. For example, it is a symptom of social anxiety, depression, avoidant personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, and agoraphobia.

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