Social Isolation

Malaysian Students' Global Alliance
3 min
Monday, November 2, 2020

‘You are not alone’ 


This is the championed phrase that is paraded by advocates on and off social media. The elephant in the room, however, is that it has rarely (if ever) been effective in comforting for those experiencing social isolation - and we know it. 


That statement holds two dimensions - one of which is that there is a readily available support system for you if you want it; the other, more readily discarded by society is that there is no good reason to isolate yourselves. Is that true?


A person that suffers from mental burdens resulting from practical stress - such as, financial issues, social network issues, education-related issues - tend to be characterised as trivial, common, and even as a non-issue in the conservative sense. The prevalent attitude in parent-children relationships (here in Malaysia, at least) usually involves thinking either: a parent’s stress originates from employment, or a child’s stress originates from education. The reality of the situation is, more often than not, sealed away from thought. Instances of workplace abuse and overworked students are so normalised in our society that it is ‘common’. The paradox of this line of thought then arises, the stress originating from these and other factors are ignored, or perceived as trivial, a waste of time [1]. It is a lose-lose situation.


The effect of this societal perception is twofold. One empowers the statement, ‘you are not alone’; your issues are a rite of passage. Those who have overcome this, or understand the methods of overcoming this, are here to guide you. The second, undermines the same statement; you are left to fend for yourself, because we all have our demons to battle. 


With all these preconceived notions in mind, it is easy for one to shut themselves out of the world. Why would anyone think this is beneficial, you may ask? Well, coming to such a conclusion is not as hard as one may think.


Firstly, shutting oneself in is a form of maladaptive coping behaviour [2]. A person who has experienced forms of manipulation, mild to severe forms of neglect, or trauma may conclude that their problems are either ‘common’, and that they are not worthy of anyone’s time; or that their problems are ‘too severe for anyone to bother with’. 


Of course, the manifestation of mental illnesses that lead to such conclusions may differ, but they are largely based on the cultural backdrop of our society. What can be objectively agreed here, is that these notions are merely perceived benefits; as if isolating ourselves from others is the quick-happy scheme that could get us right back in the game like brand new. Little do we know that such behaviour would harm us more than the harm that we think we’re saving others from.


What those involved in mental health treatment attempt to emulate in this most pronounced statement, [‘you are not alone’], is that the detriment severely outweighs the perceived benefit of bottling such emotions and being left out of the social grid. 


The feeling of loneliness is likened to being ‘alone in a room full of people’, it relates to the quality and not quantity of valuable relationships [3]. Unbeknownst to the large majority of us, the feeling of loneliness is a psychosomatic response that prompts us to mend relationships [4]. Again, we see that by saying ‘you are not alone’ reflects this thought process. You are not alone, you just feel like you are because your body is trying to make you be around people.


How do we translate this to those of us who need to hear it, then?


As we stand currently, both the neuronormative and the neurodivergent are largely uneducated on the subject of mental health in our country. Of course, there has been a rise in mental health awareness campaigns in recent years, but taboo is still presently detrimental enough to hinder progress. 


‘You are not alone.’ The beauty of this statement is in its simplicity. It does not take a mental health professional to identify and support those who are burdened by depression or anxiety. Educational institutions may provide alternative learning conditions for those who are diagnosed with any forms of anxiety; companies may provide allocations for those who suffer from depression, even if they are high-functioning individuals. Et cetera, et cetera.


The pill that is hard for us as a community to swallow is that someone who is suffering from clinical depression or PTSD are not those who mourn on the edges of society - they are our brothers, our neighbours, our colleagues and our friends, or maybe even ourselves. The bitter implication of the slogan, ‘you are not alone’, is that it may be you or me. It must be reiterated that the perceived shame that comes with it, though, is not ours to bear.


In the case that the slogan may be referring to ourselves, this behemoth of a notion must be reframed. The term “mental health” does not reference one’s self-worth, nor one’s place within society. It is analogous to your physical health - if you have a cut, you must treat it. If you have a sprain, you must rest. It goes without saying that we must identify the pain before attempting to treat it.


The same goes for when your friend has a cold, you would offer some home cooked chicken soup. It is so important that we as a society live up to our promises to not leave our friends to isolate and ‘treat themselves’ when their mental health is at risk. Another famous slogan that has been lauded by those in the Ministry of Health in recent years - mental health is no different than physical health [5]. Being hurt is a cause for concern, physically and mentally.


In all, we should be at ease to know that there is no shame in taking a step back to reevaluate our circumstances and our responses to stress. Similarly, there is no particular need to be at the top of our game at all times. If you ever find yourself needing a breather: Please let yourself heal, there is no shame in being human.


Footnotes:

  1. Anon, ‘The Stigma of Mental Health in Malaysia’ (AIA, 15 Oct 2019) <https://www.aia.com.my/en/what-matters/health-wellness/the-stigma-of-mental-health-in-malaysia.html> accessed 26 Oct 2020
  2. Spirito A and Donaldson D, ‘Suicide and Suicide Attempts During Adolescence’ (1998) 5 Comprehensive Clinial Psychology 464,474
  3. Hawkley LC and others, ‘From social structure factors to perceptions of relationship quality and loneliness: The Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study’ (2008) 63(6) Journal of Gerontology S375
  4. Cacioppo JT and Hawkley LC, ‘Perceived Social Isolation and Cognition’ (2009) 13(10) Trends in Cognitive Sciences 447
  5. Anon, ‘Reducing the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health in Malaysia’ (Malay Mail, 3 Sep 2018) <https://www.malaymail.com/news/life/2018/09/03/reducing-the-stigma-surrounding-mental-health-in-malaysia/1668867 > accessed 26 Oct 2020