Social distancing 'is a problematic term' that could damage our mental wellbeing

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced a load of new terms to our everyday vocabulary.

Coronavirus, Covid-19, isolation, pandemic, zumping, zoombombing, quarantine, covidiot, covinfluencer, to name a few.

But one term used by everyone from the government to your nan has been criticised for its potential effects on our longterm mental wellbeing: social distancing.

One expert argues that we should trade in the ‘problematic’ term of ‘social distancing’ for the more positive ‘safe relating’, in order to avoid increasing feelings of disconnection and isolation.

Prof Paul Gilbert, a clinical psychologist at the Uni of Derby who provides academic advice to Compassion in Politics, argues that describing the act of staying two metres apart as ‘social distancing’ incorrectly implies that we can’t interact socially – when in fact, we can be social, just in new, physically separated ways.

‘The term “social distancing” has been criticised because, really, we need to retain our social connectivity, both for our own mental health but also in regards to our motivation to do our best for others who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, like the elderly, the immunocompromised, and of course key workers,’ Paul tells

‘A commonly used suggested alternative is “physical distancing”. However, the word “distance” still seems problematic, so we have suggested “safe relating”, which is allied with the concept of physical distancing or physical spacing, but focuses on the social motivation of what we are doing.’

Why the World Health Organisation uses ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’

In a briefing on 20 March, WHO said they were moving away from the term ‘social distancing’, instead using ‘physical distancing’.

Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with the WHO, said: ‘We’ve been saying “physical distancing” because it’s important to remain physically separate but socially connected.

‘Keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another; that’s absolutely essential. But it doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family.

‘Technology right now has advanced so greatly that we can keep connected in many ways without actually physically being in the same room or physically being in the same space with people.

‘We want people to still remain connected. So find ways to do that, find ways through the internet and through different social media to remain connected because your mental health going through this is just as important as your physical health.’

Paul thinks that the word ‘distance’ is in itself negative, and encourages those feelings of being separated from the community around us.

He prefers ‘safe relating’ because it refocuses the steps we’re taking to stay safe as simply an adjustment to the way we relate to each other.

Paul adds: ‘In addition, the concept of “safe relating” can be applied to many different areas.

‘For example, to not carelessly or intentionally spread panic is a form of safe relating, as is spreading accurate information, etc.

‘In intimate relationships, being in control of our emotions so that we don’t act out our anger is a form of safe relating also.

‘I want to get across the idea that we intentionally focus on the concept of safeness and relating. Neither of these words are in the concept of social distancing.’

A change in terminology is part of Paul’s recommendations for the government to make their communications around coronavirus more empathetic.

Following warnings that life in lockdown could have a ‘devastating’ impact on mental health, Paul believes it’s important that the government acknowledges how tough the adjustments we’re making can be – and inspires kindness and positivity rather than functioning through fear, shame, or panic.

‘If you look at the tone of the voice that advises us to stay at home to save lives, it does come across as rather unfriendly, almost cold,’ he says.

‘I would have had a much more friendly voice and content that highlights the importance of group identity and the sense of our contribution to the struggle against the virus (which the current messages don’t seem to).

‘It’s important that we state that this is a challenge to us all. Then we say what we need to do. Then we empathise by saying sadly with what is required. Then we again highlight the fact that we are in tragic times and what is required. Then we highlight a recognition of the sacrifices people are making, and the suffering that’s arising for them. Then we focus on the positive: that we’re working very hard and as quickly as we can, and then we end with thanking people, which creates a sense of community and belonging.

‘It will help for the government to recognise the mental health consequences of the actions they are taking now.

‘One possible example to address this is, rather than having just a virus briefing every day, there could also be say 10 minutes on how to cope with what it going on right now.

‘So, you could bring on a psychologist or therapist to do 10 minutes on how to work with children who are stressed, work with relational problems, and offer practical supports including for finances and financial anxieties.

‘It would be very helpful for the government to always show an empathic appreciation of the sacrifices and emotional turmoil people are going through. That would be a really good start and that has to be genuine, not just a couple of sentences at a briefing.’

Paul also states that it’s important for the government to address the end of lockdown measures and give people something to look forward to.

‘The government could highlight the importance of looking forward to the ending of this era,’ he explains. ‘We will need to mark the end of this era, maybe with street parties, concerts or festivals, when we can come together again, to physically reconnect.

‘Personally, I think this is really essential, because we know that pandemics can increase feelings of paranoia and hostility between people, and long periods of time of social distanceing may make people more anxious about physical contact. The Japanese are going to use the Olympics next year for this.

‘The government could remind people of a better future, because we need to offer hope, and we need to offer insights that we are working for the betterment of all.

‘Obviously, this is not to be fanciful or just to promote denial, but to give people something to aim towards.

‘It’s about hope.’

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