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Residents of Denver practice social distancing while purchasing essentials at a local store.
People stand in freshly painted circles, six-feet-apart, as they wait in a two-hour line to buy marijuana products from Good Chemistry on March 23, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. 
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Coronavirus and loneliness: How to reach out to neighbors who need it

Safe ways to contact seniors, at-risk neighbors, and others needing social connection during a challenging time

In an era of social distancing and sheltering in place, Americans are seeing less of each other, at least in person, than ever before. It’s our mandate and our means of helping. But while it will help save us, it doesn’t come without a cost.

The nation’s leaders and policymakers are currently focused on combating the coronavirus as well as devising policies to ease the impact of an expected recession. But there’s also a coming social recession that deserves more attention right now, according to Erin Peavey, a Dallas-based architect and design researcher for HKS focused on designing for health and human connection.

“We need joy and distraction, and Netflix alone isn’t going to provide it,” she says. “There will be a loneliness epidemic, which will have monumental potential health impacts beyond the health impacts of COVID-19.”

In our homes and apartment buildings, and on our blocks and in our neighborhoods, it’s increasingly challenging to be good neighbors and connect with others, especially with more than half of Americans now under instructions to stay home. But this period of social isolation is a mandate and opportunity to “dig deep and get connected,” says Peavey.

Increasingly, organizations both national and local are encouraging Americans find new ways to connect with others when it’s needed most. Creating physical spaces for connections isn’t an option, or as Peavey says, “we can’t build more porches right now.” So people are turning to phones, the internet, and different kinds of community organizing to reach out.

The Sunrise Movement, a political advocacy and organizing group that’s coalesced around support of the Green New Deal, has created a People Dialer to help reach out to members of the community. The concept, which was tested in the Bay Area and Dallas last weekend, is like phone banking to combat isolation. According to Zina Precht-Rodriguez, the group’s deputy creative director, volunteers called names on a contact list, similar to what political campaigns typically do for get-out-the-vote drives. But instead of trying to convince voters, they simply started chatting with adults over 50, asking them how they were, offering to connect them with local support groups and mutual aid societies, and providing companionship.

“We want to hyper-localize it, and make sure we can give people in other major cities the ability to call people near them and help foster a sense of community,” she says.

Other groups and tech platforms are promoting their own strategies around making more personal connections. The AARP has created detailed guidelines and suggestions on how older people—27 percent of Americans over 60 live alone—can seek help, and how others can pitch in during a lonely time. Suggestions include sending a letter, creating a virtual book club, playing board games, or ordering them a hobby box. Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social network, has introduced Help Maps and Groups, a new way for local residents to assist at-risk members of the community and provide aid or run errands, and Meetup has posted guidelines on hosting online-only gatherings and events. Communities across the country are coming together to form mutual aid societies, cooperative neighborhood groups offering support and resources to each other.

Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad has conducted seminal research on the significant long-term health effects of a lack of social connection, and how social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for early mortality. She says the current pandemic is only worsening existing mental health issues.

“I’ve spent my career studying how social relationships impact our physical health, and there’s been a lot of debate about whether we’re truly facing a loneliness epidemic,” says Holt-Lunstad. “After this, I think we’re getting into uncharted territory.”

The immediate concern around the novel coronavirus right now, and the focus of relief efforts, is slowing the spread and flattening the curve. But with widespread uncertainty over the length of time social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders will be utilized, mental health professional such as Holt-Lunstad believe we’re in the midst of an emergency.

Just as the coronavirus crisis has been a test for the education system—its ability to quickly pivot, adopt new methods of education, and go online—it’ll also test the nation’s mental health infrastructure.

“It’ll shine the light on the extent that social media is helping you, or how telemedicine works, but it’ll also quickly make the limitations quite apparent,” she says.

Research into the benefits of social support suggest acting now can be vitally important. After performing lab tests where researchers would do stress tests and measure the response of different subjects, Holt-Lunstad found that subjects with supportive social networks had a blunted stress response. This is why small efforts to reach out to isolated members of your community, even a regular text or video call, can pay great dividends.

“When we are facing some kind of stressor or threat in our environment, the perception that we can turn to others for help and rely on them, and that they have our backs, lets us cope with them much better,” she says. “While we can’t be physically present right now, we can check in with people via email or text. Reaching out to people, asking how they’re doing, and listening to them, all these things can be beneficial.”

She underscores that efforts to reach out shouldn’t violate social distancing protocols. But checking in on neighbors can be vitally important right now.

It’s especially important because the nation’s mental health infrastructure is already feeling the pinch. Neil Leibowitz is the chief medical officer of Talkspace, an online therapy network. He says they have seen a 600 percent surge in client requests as of last week, and 150 new applications by psychiatrists who, due to a loss of in-person business, are looking to join the network.

“We’re living in a world of financial insecurity and anxiety already, and this makes it exponentially worse,” he says. “People need to be resilient, and they’ll need to interact with people in ways they haven’t in a while. I’m hesitant to say knock on your 90-year-old neighbor’s door to bring them tea. But definitely put them in your FaceTime, text, or call rotation.”

In light of the need to establish more social connection amid social distancing, many organizations, like Sunrise, are trying to scale up efforts to reach out and contact neighbors.

So far, the group’s People Dialer project has shown promise. The tests have been a great success, says Precht-Rodriguez, and they eventually hope to collaborate with other organizations to widen their reach. People Dialer volunteers left voicemails and had their messages returned, uncommon for typical phone-banking campaigns. One older man, angry he had been woken up at 9:30 a.m., heard what the People Dialer project was all about and called back later that day to volunteer.

With weeks and perhaps months of social isolation ahead, it’s important to keep the social fabric from fraying, and even try to strengthen it with new connections. It’s one of many challenges facing Americans right now, and one that experts hope can inspire much-needed outreach.

“We’re opening up to a better version of ourselves due to these new realizations of our interdependence,” says Peavey. “It’s touching and feels really beautiful.”