The Hidden Toll of the Pandemic: Adolescent Social Isolation and Its Relevance as of Today


To Professor Chris Whitty  

Chief Medical Advisor and Expert Advisor 

Department of Health and Social Care  

39 Victoria Street, London 


Dear Professor Chris Whitty,

I am writing to express my concern about the ongoing issue of social isolation due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a Medical Anthropology student, my aim in this letter is to voice the concerns of adolescents who are still experiencing social isolation due to the pandemic. I aim to do so by suggesting that the Department of Health and Social Care expands more on the discussion paper they provided on Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan (Great Britain. Department of Health and Social Care, 2023). While it provides an overall understanding of mental illness and aims to find solutions through a set of questions at the end of each chapter, I urge you to be more vocal by advertising this document through the NHS, so it can be delivered to patients. This letter thoroughly discusses how the younger generation of the United Kingdom are greatly affected by social isolation, which I suggest that you should not overlook.  

It has been exactly 3 years since the first lockdown was implemented, adolescents have been affected by this turbulent time. Many university students, including myself, rushed home in the midst of our university term while others stayed back and were unable to seek comfort or safety alongside their families. Little did we know that most of us would not be returning, which would have been incredibly difficult for those who ended up staying behind. In turn, this inevitably impacted rates of loneliness, leading to social isolation. Today, if we compare rates of social isolation between the UK and other affected countries, we are quite behind as those countries have either improved or remained stable (Aknin et al., 2022). Unfortunately, factors of social isolation influence life satisfaction, rates of loneliness and suicide. If we apply those factors in the UK, there is a clear indication of psychological distress that people in this country are still facing (Williams et al., 2021). This finding alone implies an urgent need to create a plan to respond to the issue of social isolation in the UK. The Office for National Statistics predicted rates of depression prevalent in around 1 in 5 adults (Williams et al., 2021). This finding reveals an increased rate of depression since November 2020 in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. In Pieh and scholar’s (2021) study, their analysis found an increase of 22.1% of individuals experiencing depression due to the pandemic, while 21.6% reported experiencing anxiety. It was also found that those dealing with depressive symptoms often lived in deprived areas, including women, younger adults, and disabled individuals.  

Loneliness Amongst Young People 

More specifically, Groarke and scholars (2020) identified higher rates of depression among adults aged 16 to 29 years old. Upon further examination, it was determined that the younger population experiencing loneliness were also struggling as a result of low incomes and residing alone (Groarke et al., 2020). Additionally, they were experiencing unemployment, lower levels of education, minimal to no social support, and other mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, that affect vulnerable individuals. Furthermore, younger people were also discovered to be at risk of feeling socially isolated due to closures of schools and universities, restricting their social interaction. An online ethnography by Winter and Lavis (2022), highlighted that spending lockdown in an abusive home environment heightened isolation and decreased mental health support. Young individuals experienced anxiety and depression for the first time due to online education. Based on my personal experience, I have encountered difficulties when interacting with others since the easing of lockdowns and restrictions. I have also found that I have been unsuccessful trying to readjust to social norms that existed before the pandemic as I have now developed social anxiety. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that others may be facing similar challenges as me.  

The Social Burden of COVID-19 


As a student of anthropology, I would like to highlight a fundamental aspect of human life, which is socializing. However, due to the necessity of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, various challenges have arisen, affecting both the bodies and minds of individuals (Fuentes, 2020). Many anthropologists argue that COVID-19 is not just a biological event, but a biosocial phenomenon (Singer et al., 2020). By this, I mean that historically, humans have greatly affected things that have a relation to one another in our world, such as our environment, culture, society, biology, and well-being (Gibbon et al., 2020). In this context we can argue that COVID-19 has been shown to co-exist both biologically and socially. According to Fuentes (2020), while SARS-CoV-2 has its own biological existence, the COVID-19 pandemic, however, is also characterized by society in which we have feared the virus and each other. This pervasive fear has greatly impacted our mental well-being.   Stuart and his team (2020), used a biopsychosocial framework to present understandings of the psychological, social, and biological impacts of the pandemic, which included restricted access to healthcare, worsening illnesses, negative emotions, loneliness, and social isolation that have led to a decline in mental well-being. Additionally, difficulties in accessing support and maintaining education and employment have been reported due to an increase in social isolation. This is prevalent in a study by Mckeown and scholars (2021), where findings have shown that changes in opportunities for socialization and working during the lockdown could have altered ongoing thought patterns, especially in relation to social features and future-directed thoughts. With this information, we can identify that social isolation has profoundly affected us both mentally and physically. Fuentes (2020) stresses the negative consequences of social isolation on humans, which can manifest in physiological and psychological forms. The pandemic has disrupted social and cultural practices where some cultures have certain norms and expectations around social isolation. For example, some cultures may have a strong drive for community support while others prioritize self-reliance, which is similar to my cultural background, so it could have been difficult for those who were taught to rely on themselves (Chapin III et al., 2016). To add more to that, ethnic minorities were found to experience intensified feelings of isolation due to discrimination and anxiety (Fischer et al., 2021). As per a Canadian study, ethnic minorities encountering discrimination related to COVID-19 had poorer mental health outcomes especially when cultural stigmas associated with mental health challenges in some communities intensified the issue (Fischer et al., 2021).  Addressing mental health challenges among ethnic minorities requires culturally sensitive mental health support, tailored outreach programs, and active efforts to combat discrimination and stigma.

I would like to direct your focus on the role of digital technology in the issue of social isolation. On the one hand, technology has helped maintain relationships online during the pandemic. On the other hand, it has been found to exacerbate social isolation among young adolescents. Dedryver and Knai’s (2021) discovered in their study that excessive use of digital platforms and devices led to increased isolation, which negatively impacted users’ mental health. Therefore, due to the potential for digital technology to increase mental health issues, excessive use of technology was determined to be a risk factor for anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Furthermore, Fischer and scholars (2021) argue that polarization, which is ideas or opinions discussed on a public policy or any historic event, can spread inaccurate information and dangerous beliefs. To manage ideological diversity, policymakers should prompt coordinated action with value-driven leadership and encourage productive conversations about shared values using conflict resolution techniques.


I would like to address further the discussion paper on the Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan published by the Department of Health and Social Care (Great Britain. Department of Health and Social Care, 2023). As previously mentioned, the plan provides useful general knowledge on mental health. However, I recommend policymakers to cooperate with medical anthropologists to create a report in hopes to educate individuals on the specific mental health impacts of COVID-19, including the effects of social isolation. As it seems that the spread of information about mental health has not been done properly in 2020, it is likely to happen again. To avoid that, robust policy needs to be put in place to ensure adverse health consequences are avoided. This will not only reduce the stigma surrounding mental health but also provide recommendations to tackle social isolation as a society. Such collaboration will also help policymakers disseminate factual information to prepare for future pandemics. Readers can then be encouraged to volunteer and take part in mental health organizations or charities to spread awareness, while funding collected through these organizations or charities can be used to provide mental health services. It is essential to dedicate a specific time of year for the nation to address the importance of checking on one another. Moreover, local and small communities can come together to host more events that require participation among their residents, allowing them to socialize and enjoy their time. Essentially, policymakers should target those who are seriously vulnerable or at risk. By further studying these solutions, we can attempt to reduce the effects of social isolation which were caused by the pandemic. Fischer and scholars’ (2021) report provides valuable insights into how different cultures were able to recover from social isolation, which we can learn from by studying carefully. The sooner we address and combat social isolation, the quicker we can reduce both its cause and its effects.  

Kind Regards, 

Fayeza Ahmed 

Reference List:

  • Aknin, L.B., De Neve, J.E., Dunn, E.W., Fancourt, D.E., Goldberg, E., Helliwell, J.F., Jones, S.P., Karam, E., Layard, R., Lyubomirsky, S. and Rzepa, A., 2022. Mental health during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: A review and recommendations for moving forward. Perspectives on psychological science, 17(4), pp.915-936.
  • Chapin III, F.S., Knapp, C.N., Brinkman, T.J., Bronen, R. and Cochran, P., 2016. Community-empowered adaptation for self-reliance. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 19, pp.67-75.
  • Dedryver, C.C. and Knai, C., 2021. ‘It’s Easily the Lowest I’ve Ever, Ever Got to’: A Qualitative Study of Young Adults’ Social Isolation during the COVID-19 Lockdowns in the UK. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(22), p.11777.
  • Fischer, E.F. et al. (2021) Improving Pandemic Response: GLOBAL LESSONS AND CULTURAL INSIGHTS FROM COVID-19. rep. Nashville , Tennessee: Vanderbilt Cultural Context of Health & Wellbeing Initiative, pp. 1–28. 
  • Fuentes, A., 2020. A (bio) anthropological view of the Covid-19 era midstream: Beyond the infection. Anthropology Now, 12(1), pp.24-32.
  • Gibbon, S., Daly, L., Parkhurst, A., Ryan, C., Salali, G.D. and Tasker, A.L.E.X., 2020. Biosocial Medical Anthropology in the Time of Covid-19. New Challenges and Opportunities. University College London https://medanthucl. com/2020/04/29/biosocial-medical-anthropology-in-the-time-of-COVID-19-newchallenges-and-opportunities.
  • Great Britain. Department of Health and Social Care, 2023. Mental Health and Wellbeing plan: discussion paper. Available at: (Accessed: 27 June 2023).
  • Groarke, J.M., Berry, E., Graham-Wisener, L., McKenna-Plumley, P.E., McGlinchey, E. and Armour, C., 2020. Loneliness in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic: Cross-sectional results from the COVID-19 Psychological Wellbeing Study. PloS one, 15(9), p.e0239698.
  • Mckeown, B., Poerio, G.L., Strawson, W.H., Martinon, L.M., Riby, L.M., Jefferies, E., McCall, C. and Smallwood, J., 2021. The impact of social isolation and changes in work patterns on ongoing thought during the first COVID-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(40), p.e2102565118.
  • Pieh, C., Budimir, S., Delgadillo, J., Barkham, M., Fontaine, J.R. and Probst, T., 2021. Mental health during COVID-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom. Psychosomatic medicine, 83(4), pp.328-337.
  • Singer, M. and Rylko-Bauer, B., 2020. The syndemics and structural violence of the COVID pandemic: anthropological insights on a crisis. Open Anthropological Research, 1(1), pp.7-32.
  • Stuart, K., Faghy, M.A., Bidmead, E., Browning, R., Roberts, C., Grimwood, S. and Winn-Reed, T., 2020. A biopsychosocial framework for recovery from COVID-19. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 40(9/10), pp.1021-1039.
  • Williams, T., Davis, J., Figueira, C. and Vizard, T., 2021. Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: January to March 2021. Office for National Statistics, 5.

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