Social isolation roots of female mental illness?
If you’re female and have a good social life there’s less chance of you committing suicide – this was at the core of a recently published study, courtesy the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Sound almost glib? It would be if the body of work built on data from the Nurse’s Health Study didn’t reveal itself to be the tip of a dangerous societal iceberg. By reviewing the lives of over 70,000 nurses from 1992 to 2010 the authors- Boston, Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dr. Alexander Tsai and team – were able to state that with social isolation in the mix, “Suicide is one of the top 10 leading causes of death among women, and rates are climbing.”
As published in JAMA, Tsai and co-authors concluded that women who were more socially isolated, drank tons of coffee, worked full time and didn’t exercise much were at a greater risk of suicide. One doesn’t have to look too far to recognise a woman like this in one’s own life; on a week when work has trumped the gym every day I only need to look in the bathroom mirror.
Aside from drawing a clear correlation between women and suicide, Tsai’s team shone a light onto an area that scholars increasingly say is not developed enough. Mental illness is not the only factor in a person’s decision to end their own life; social isolation, which can stem from restricted financial means, geographical constraints and time demands, is now seen as a pre-cursor to illnesses like depression. Does social isolation then cause mental illness, and if so, at what stage of life are the seeds sewn?
Twelve years ago David Williamson, University of News Services, wrote a short piece for Gillings School for Global Public Health: ‘Research reveals social isolation boosts teen girls’ suicide thoughts.’
‘Parents probably can get no more devastating news than that one of their children has committed suicide… It now is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults up to age 24. A new study appearing in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health underscores the importance of helping teens, especially girls, avoid feeling isolated from friends.’
The 2003 research was based on the largest survey of adolescents and their attitudes and experiences ever conducted in the U.S at the time: the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (NLSAH). It involved 13,465 adolescents.
Williamson’s summation quoted the original designer of the core study that began in 1993, a Dr. Peter S. Bearman, Professor of Sociology and Director of Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research:
“Social networks had significant effects on those thoughts in teenage girls but not boys. Adolescent girls who are isolated from peers or whose social relationships are troubled are at greater risk for suicidal thoughts than are girls with close relationships to other adolescents.
“Most importantly, socially isolated females were more likely to have suicidal thoughts, as were females whose friends were not friends with each other” said Bearman.
That landmark study gave rise to countless others. One of the more recent ones looked at the female leaning towards social isolation, performed by Indian students Priyanka Tiwari and Sonakshi Ruhela at Amity University, Noida, 3 years ago. Social Isolation & Depression among Adolescents: A Comparative Perspective was conducted with 150 boys and 150 girls in the Delhi region of India. All 300 students were aged between 16 and 18 years of age.
While they concluded that social isolation causes mental illness among teens and that girls are more likely to fall prey to it, Tiwari and Sonakshi started out offering a helpful explanation of what social isolation actually is today.
‘Social isolation refers to lack of contact with members of one’s species. It is characterised by lack of contact with other people in normal daily living. Socialisation involves a combination of low levels of social interaction with the experience of feelings of loneliness. According to Seeman (1996), social isolation is “…disengagement from social ties, institutional connections or community participation. This can result in the lack or minimising of social contact and or communication.”’
They also cited work by author and science journalist Shankar Vedantam, work that indicated a sharp rise in people saying they had ‘no one in whom they can confide, no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles.’
Tiwari and Sonakshi noted that social isolation can be caused by the kind of loneliness that is not defined by being alone, but by being without some definite needed relationship or set of relationships.
To apply this template to girls and boys, the study worked through three hypotheses. The third, showing an average of 1.26 girls and 0.89 boys likely to suffer from social isolation, led them to conclude that, yes, social isolation is higher among girls when compared with boys. The mean for depressive behaviour in girls was also higher than that of boys.
In an age where digital communication increasingly trumps face to face and family interaction we could easily miss the signs that warn of this emotional female state. The rise of female suicide in for instance, Dr Tsai’s work, shows there most definitely have been times when we’ve missed it.
As Dr. J Richard Udry, Bearman’s original co-author and, at the time, Professor of Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health advises:
“If parents and others saw that a daughter was socially isolated and also thinking about suicide, they could intervene to help shape that child’s social world. Such intervention might have no effect on boys.”
Image with thanks to artboxdesign.biz ‘Sad Girl Alone in Rain’