July 9, 2020

Why some people won't socially distance, in their own words

Daily Briefing

    A number of Americans refuse to comply with social distancing policies aimed at stemming the new coronavirus' spread, with some arguing that the policies infringe on their personal rights and others saying they feel the mental health risks associated with social isolation outweigh the risk of contracting the virus.

    Advisory Board's take: 3 ways you can limit the effects of social isolation

    The 'silent threat' of social isolation

    For some young Americans, social distancing comes with significant mental health risks that they argue may be more dangerous than contracting the novel coronavirus, NPR's "Shots" reports.

    According to CDC, almost half of people between the ages of 18 and 29 have reported feeing symptoms of anxiety or depression, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people under the age of 35.

    Gregory Lewis, who studies the neurobiology of social interaction at Indiana University, said social connection is necessary for young people to feel secure about who they are and their place in the world. He explained, "We expect as a human being to have other people there to share the stressful times and to be our backup, and when they're not there physically, that in [and] of itself tells our nervous system 'you're in a dangerous environment because you don't have these people here.'"

    Audrey—an 18-year-old who has experienced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—told NPR, "A lot of people are calling attention to coronavirus because it's right in front of us … But at the same time, teens' depression rate—it's a silent threat." She added, "I know all about how seeing friends and seeing people outside—and social interaction—is vital for survival."

    Lisa Jacobs, a psychologist, said Audrey's comment reflects a common theme expressed by young patients she sees. While the patients understand the risks associated with Covid-19, "[t]hey are appropriately realizing that isolation is a risk for them as well—it's a risk factor for depression, and depression is a risk factor for suicide," Jacobs said. "And 8% of American teens attempt suicide each year," she noted.

    However, people aren't particularly good at assessing risk—especially when it comes to the risks their own behaviors may present for others, Vox reports.

    "It's about our risk to others, and that might make it a little more difficult to understand," Cynthia Rohrbeck, an associate professor in clinical and community psychology at George Washington University, said.

    But Audrey and Jacobs both noted that many young Americans feel as if concerns about their generations' unique challenges have never been taken seriously, and they question why they should now alter their behavior to address the higher risks older Americans may face amid the coronavirus epidemic.

    "We haven't seen the government or adults as passionate about the things we really care about, like mental health and climate issues," Audrey told NPR.

    Jacobs said many of her young patients have expressed similar thoughts, raising a lack of action to address issues like climate change and school shootings. "After not being protected, after not being taken seriously, they were asked to take extreme measures to protect other groups and to put themselves at risk by doing so," Jacobs said.

    Refusing to 'live in fear'

    Other Americans have argued that being told to social distance and wear face masks or coverings infringes on their personal rights.

    "Me, personally, I just refuse to live my life in fear," Katie Williams, a 30-year-old who lives in Las Vegas, told Vox.

    According to Vox, Williams gained national attention after a tweet she posted in March went viral. In the tweet, Williams wrote that she "went to a crowded" restaurant for dinner. "It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I'll do what I want," Williams wrote.

    "As Americans, we typically do what we want. It's kind of that attitude we've always had," Williams recently told Vox. "I think if we're going to start pressuring people that they have to stay home, or publicly shaming them like pariahs, I think we're just starting to lose a little bit of our sense of country and our sense of rights."

    Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London, told Vox that people's psychological need for control can lead them to feel as if their personal freedoms are impeded by social distancing requirements. "One of the most important things for people is to have a sense that they are in control of their own life, that they have agency," Sharot said.

    But Amy Fairchild, a public health ethicist and dean of Ohio State University's College of Public Health, said people should consider that social distancing and other policies intended to curb the new coronavirus' spread protect people's rights. "As an individual, I have a right not to be infected by somebody who is not paying attention," she said.

    Susan Michie, a health psychologist and director of the Center for Behavior Change at the University College London, said getting people to understand how their behavior impacts others is key to getting them to comply with social distancing policies. The global coronavirus pandemic proves that "[w]e're interconnected," she said.

    To encourage that understanding, politicians must convey a sense of urgency and simultaneously support people while they're required to stay home, Michie said (Noguchi, "Shots," NPR, 7/4; Cummins, "The Highlight," Vox, 7/2).

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