Driving around her Kearney, Missouri neighborhood is both respite and torture for Kathie Hodgson. She likes seeing other people out and about; it reminds her what life was like before COVID-19. But Hodgson, a 41-year-old teacher who lives alone after a recent divorce, says seeing happy families playing in their yards or walking their dogs can also send her plunging deep into a spiral of loneliness.
“You know, as much as I have valued my independence in the past year, it’s finally hitting me that I would like to curl up on the couch with somebody at night,” Hodgson says.
The irony, Hodgson says, is she was thrilled to live alone before the coronavirus pandemic hit, enjoying her “me time” and the newfound ability to date and see friends whenever she wanted—not long ago, she lived with her kids (who recently grew up and moved out) and a partner (who she recently divorced). But now that she’s confined to her apartment almost 24 hours a day, she is feeling the emptiness of her home acutely.
“Some days I smile and feel okay,” Hodgson says. “And other days I curl up in a ball and wonder if this goes on too much longer, will I be able to take it mentally? Can I last sanely living alone for months—a year?”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public-health experts were concerned about an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. The coronavirus has exacerbated that problem, with most face-to-face socializing for people still under lockdown orders indefinitely limited to members of their own households. For the 35.7 million Americans who live alone, that means no meaningful social contact at all, potentially for months on end.
Experts are rightly concerned about the mental health ramifications of this widespread isolation, especially since there’s no agreed-upon tipping point at which acute loneliness transitions into a chronic problem with long-term consequences. A group of doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School warned in an April 22 commentary published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that physical distancing and stress caused by the pandemic, combined with rising firearm sales, could worsen the suicide crisis the U.S. has already been weathering for more than a decade.
On the other hand, some mental health advocates are optimistic that COVID-19 will finally give loneliness the mainstream recognition it deserves—possibly paving the way for a more socially connected future.