A colleague recently mentioned using the phrase “physical distancing” in place of “social distancing” after listening to this podcast with epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH
. (Osterholm is the founder and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.) In the current context, social
distancing means staying at least 6 feet away from one another to decrease the spread of COVID-19. But doesn’t this mean keep 6 feet of physical
distance between each other? This struck a chord with me and I wondered, “Why don’t
we just say what we mean?”
I did a little research and saw that the use of “social distance” versus “physical distance” has been addressed and written about, but until the media and our leaders make this transition, it is unlikely to catch on. However, after over four months of distancing here in the U.S. and the effects of quarantine and isolation taking a toll on many, it does seem like it’s time to make this shift in terminology. If it can help mitigate some of the mental health consequences of this pandemic, isn’t it worth it?
The hidden dangers of social distancing come in many forms. Large scale disasters are almost always accompanied by short- and long-term consequences for mental health and well-being. Substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance use, loneliness, and domestic violence, and possibly, child abuse, are anticipated during and in the wake of COVID-19 (Galea et al., 2020; Venkatesh & Edirappuli, 2020).
In this Health Affairs blog
, the authors stress that, “Messaging matters greatly, especially during a global emergency,” and that “‘Social distancing’ blurs the critical distinction between physical and social proximity. It also does little to shape social psychological dynamics that boost public resilience to sustain required behavior change.” They go on to recommend a change to “physical distancing, social connection” as a solution to differentiate social activities that maintain physical distance while fostering social connectivity.
Humans are social beings
According to John M. Grohol, Psy.D.,
“‘social distancing’ is not only a misnomer, it is exactly the opposite of what we want people to do during any type of natural disaster.” Social interaction is necessary for our mental health and well-being. Social interactions can continue during this pandemic; they will just look and feel different. More than ever before in our history, we have ways to remain social, while maintaining physical distance. We are fortunate to have the means to stay virtually connected through social networks, video and phone calls, and even mailing letters. It is especially important to ensure continued connection with people who are typically marginalized and isolated, including the elderly, undocumented immigrants, homeless persons and those with mental illness (Galea et al, 2020).
Maintaining physical distance is an important strategy to slow the spread of COVID-19, but please stay socially connected. It’s how we will get through this – together.
Allen, H., Ling, B., & Burton, W. (2020, April 27). Stop Using The Term ‘Social Distancing’ -- Start Talking About ‘Physical Distancing, Social Connection.’ Health Affairs. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200424.213070/full/
Galea, S., Merchant, R. M., & Lurie, N. (2020). The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention. JAMA internal medicine, 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1562. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1562
Grohol, J. (2020, April 7). Alone, Together: Why It’s Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing https://psychcentral.com/blog/alone-together-why-its-physical-distancing-not-social-distancing/
Venkatesh, A., & Edirappuli, S. (2020). Social distancing in covid-19: what are the mental health implications?. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 369, m1379. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1379