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Opinion: 'Covid left many feeling disregarded by society because they don’t live in a family unit'

Yvonne Barnes-Holmes says that the level of suffering created by a lack of social interaction is just beginning to emerge.

Yvonne Barnes-Holmes

MOST OF US felt isolated during the Covid-19 lockdowns. We no longer had access to the full life we lived before and had to settle instead for more time within our family unit or shared household.

Whether that was a good or bad thing, few of us stopped to think about those who did not live within a family or household. What happened to the single, the divorced, those living away from partners, or even those stuck in an unhappy relationship? As psychologists at Perspectives Ireland, we are seeing more and more referrals from this forgotten group of people.

Much of our social narrative during the pandemic focused on the vulnerable and the elderly, for mainly medical reasons. The rest of us were urged to stay at home and restrict contact to those within our household.

Solitude and despair

But it is becoming increasingly clear to us that those who don’t live in a shared household were also hugely vulnerable.

If you don’t have a partner, children, or flatmates (who stayed), the restrictions meant complete isolation, with your only social contact being a short trip to the supermarket; there was simply no other avenue for you to interact physically with others. The enormous suffering created by this level of emotional deprivation is just beginning to emerge.

Working with clients from this group, we hear the same messages of solitude and despair over and over, even from individuals who felt that their lives had been going places prior to lockdown.

It’s hard to be single when you can’t meet friends, contemplate dates or enjoy family time. It’s hard to get your life on track after separation if you can’t start making a new life, and it’s hard to leave an unhappy relationship during a lockdown. For over a year, these people were totally stuck, immobile and isolated.

Many of these are new clients, who would likely not have sought help if there was no lockdown, but they felt disregarded because they don’t live in a family unit. One of these clients told us: “They don’t care about single people. I haven’t been hugged in over a year and that’s such a basic human need. I feel totally deprived of the smallest bit of affection.” This deprivation has left a deep scar and healing it will take time.

A sense of loss

Loss also features strongly. A client in her late 30s told us: “I am coming toward the end of my ability to have children, and I’ve lost two years of chances to meet someone.”

No matter how much we can help as psychologists, we cannot give her back that time. This is a legitimate type of loss that many women in that group have to live with, with no guarantee that it won’t happen again.

The isolation experienced by this group lasted months and many can’t simply bounce back as restrictions lift. When someone doesn’t feel seen, self-efficacy diminishes and ‘learned helplessness’ sets in. This results in a deep sense that your actions, no matter what, will have no impact.

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One older man told us: “I live on my own and none of my friends live within 5km. At the beginning, the Zoom chats were nice, but after a while I didn’t have the energy for them. And now, I’ve lost all my confidence and motivation to go on. I’m turning into a shell of who I used to be.

As these stories start to be told, we expect to see more and more clients from this group. Right now, many are still trying to reset their lives, but our guess is that the coming months will reveal the damage left by this isolation and the enormous challenge for some in bouncing back.

The restrictions in Ireland, relative to other countries, were severe. Consider Belgium, where a “cuddle contact” was permitted – physical contact with someone you didn’t live with but did not need to socially distance from. But Ireland made no such allowance, until the eventual emergence of the “support bubble” which operated under very strict conditions. For this vulnerable group, this may well have been too little too late.

A new narrative

You might be forgiven for thinking that the restrictions were right to cater for the majority, but then you will be surprised to learn that approximately 40% of people in Ireland don’t live in a couple, and for those aged 16-29, this increases to 71%.

In other words, almost half of the population was effectively not considered during the formation of the pandemic restrictions in terms of preventing isolation and loneliness. And now this huge portion of our society are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to re-establish a social world, with no explicit supports in place for them.

If you ask someone from this group, they will tell you that the problem goes beyond pandemic restrictions. We hear again and again that many feel unseen and disregarded because the concept of the family unit is so tightly weaved into the Irish narrative.

But clearly, the structure of Irish life is changing. It is time for a new narrative on what it means to be Irish and not to live within a family unit. It is time to recognise that many people happily live alone or more safely than when they lived with others but because of that, their social lives are hugely important and essential to their wellbeing.

As a result, we must place a high premium on physical contact for this group, no matter what crisis we face as a nation.

Yvonne Barnes-Holmes is Co-Founder of Perspectives Ireland, an Irish consulting psychology company which provides science-driven training for organisations and individuals. For more information, visit perspectivesireland.ie

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