The neuroscience and changes in mental health during the pandemic.


After staying separate for so long, social isolation has taken a toll on many’s mental health. According to Science News, studies on the psychological effects on those that were under heavy quarantine during the Ebola, SARS and other widespread diseases during the 2000s showed that many suffered through both long and short term mental health problems while quarantining. According to Science News, of the people under quarantine, 34% reported psychological distress, for example anxiety or depression, while 12% of those not under quarantined reported psychological distress. Many experienced insomnia and substance abuse as well as emotional exhaustion. 

The mental and physical effects of emotional exhaustion are multifaceted. Mental impacts include depression, lack of motivation, irrational anger and trouble concentrating, while physical effects range from trouble sleeping, to a change in appetite and headaches.

According to Science News, heavily quarantined hospital workers from Beijing during the 2003 SARS outbreak reported higher levels of substance abuse 3 years later compared to those who were less heavily quarantined. The risk of mental health problems increases with factors such lack of information, lack of necessary supplies and the length of the quarantine. 

Humans are social creatures, and complete separation from others can cause severe health issues. According to Psychology Today, social isolation affects the production of dopamine and serotonin, which is essential for our overall mental health. The study showed that a drop in the production of the hormones caused increased loneliness and a need to socialize.

A study  led by Gillian A. Mathews, at Salk Institute for Biological Studies, studies the brain activity of mice that have been either isolated or grouped with other mice. Mice, like us, are also inherently social. When a new mouse was introduced to the mouse that was kept isolated, the mouse was much more interested in the new mouse than the mice that already had other mice.

Researchers were also able to turn a certain neuron on and off with photo activation on a certain side of the cage. When the neuron was turned on, the non-isolated mice showed an increased presence in the social section of the cage. However, when the photo activation light to turn on the dopamine neuron was turned on for an isolated mouse, the mouse stayed away from the region with the photo activation because there was no other mouse to keep away the loneliness. The isolated mice also began to avoid the region with the neuron activating light because it provided a sense of loneliness that could not be satiated.

This study shows that loneliness is partly caused by neurons in the socially isolated, meaning loneliness is the brain’s way of prompting social contact. Social contact may seem difficult when we have to stay distant from others, but we need it to help mitigate the long term and short term effects of the pandemic. School based therapist, Richard Prinz says, “We don’t want social distance because we need to stay in contact, but because of COVID we need to be physical distancing. Loneliness is about not feeling connected. You can feel lonely even when you’re with people.”

We now have the technology to talk to others while staying physically apart from them. However, it’s not a cure-all because it promotes things like zoom fatigue and does not reach all of the requirements that keep the social parts of our brains happy. Sophomore at MVHS, Akanksha Varansi explains, “It’s just more of just being with that person. I like physically talking to my friends.” There’s a reason for that; according to Psychology Today, face to face interactions allow us to bounce off ideas and align our feelings better, which apps like zoom just can’t accomplish.

This is also modeled in the classroom where online school is quite a problem for many. Freshman at MVHS, Siya Dixit “School is harder. It’s harder to ask teachers questions and ask for help. It feels difficult to reach out when you are spotlighted.” Schools especially have a harder time getting across concepts to students because it is not easy to translate the spontaneity of human interaction onto an online platform, and it is difficult to try and prompt that spontaneity when you are singled out.

Despite some of the drawbacks of online platforms, it is still very important to talk to others. Loneliness and its many side-effects are combated by staying connected and feeling understood. Dixit says, “We are all going through everything the same thing, more or less.” We all are facing the reality of global pandemic and staying connected will help us lean on each other and get through it.

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