Mental Health: Does ‘Solitary Confinement’ Ring a Bell?

(Silverdale, Washington; Dec. 03, 2020) – Solitary confinement is one of the harshest punishments our justice system can inflict on prisoners.

Solitary confinement is designed to stop violent inmates from harming others (be those ‘others’ inmates or guards).  Solitary confinement is a controversial punishment because its negative psychological impacts are real.  A 2017 study by Craig Haney argued solitary confinement inflicts psychological damage by removing inmates from the social interactions our species has evolved to need.[1]

I am not using this space to argue for or against solitary confinement.  I’m only using Haney’s research to demonstrate that forcibly removing a member of the human species from regular contact with humanity is simply not healthy.

I and many, many others have effectively been in solitary confinement since March.

After our summer of love (you know, the riots, insurrections, and election parties which allowed the virus to have super-spreader vectors all year), we’re now being told to cancel our holidays, hunker down, and don’t have any in-person interactions with anyone not part of our immediate household.

I live alone.  I am my household.

From March to November, the only living people I talked to in person were my former best friend (long story) and my friends across the street, but even those interactions were sparse.  I talk to my parents and brother via phone at least once a week, but electronic communication is a poor substitute, especially when everyone in my circle (save me) is married (and some also have kids in the house).

Couples and families are confined together.  Single people (all ages) are in solitary confinement.

I had a brief respite in November when I could go back to Starbucks down on Bucklin Hill Road and work.  I got to chat with the staff (whom I know), and other customers.  We kept masks on, we stayed six feet apart, and we respected the Starbucks staff when they needed to come through and sanitize anything.  For three weeks I could feel my own emotional stability starting to improve.  It was as if I’d finally reached a gas station and began reinflating a critically low tire after hours of driving slowly on a dark highway at night.

And then it was all taken away.  Again.

First off, families with kids at home, hell, even just a married couple with no kids—they all are experiencing extraordinary stress due to the pandemic.  Even dedicated stay-at-home parents are smothered.  Their stress is real.  Their stress requires as much support from the rest of us as possible.

But, guess what?

The stress of isolation on single people of all ages is just as real.  Simply because our stress differs from yours does not invalidate either of our struggles.  And, yet, we single people are being told we are effectively allowed no human contact at all (chatting with a check-out clerk at a cash register doesn’t count, sorry).

Dismissing someone else’s stress simply because it doesn’t fit our experience or our paradigms is an incredibly common thing we’re all prone to do…and an incredibly cruel thing we’re all prone to do.

I will never dismiss or belittle the stressors weighing on those who have other people in their household.  Look, I was in the freaking U.S. Navy for 20 years.  I know what it’s like to be stuck in a very small, very confined area with people at close quarters for a long period of time and not be able to get space.  That stress is real.

However, don’t dismiss my stress either.  Living isolated is no picnic for a fully stable and mentally healthy person.  I’m doing it with the PTSD gifts of high anxiety and depression which already make my normal life an interesting challenge at the best of times.  Even so, I’m a master at coping strategies, distractions, and self-care.  I’m blessed that I work from home as my own boss now doing work I love as a writer.  Many single people of all ages do not have my level of coping skills, and many don’t have the advantage of meaningful work from home.  They’re suffering a lot.

I have no problem prioritizing physical safety; the virus is first a physical threat, especially to the elderly.  I do have a problem with our refusal to factor in sensible policy ideas to simultaneously protect mental health.  I also have a big problem being told I’m a selfish, deluded virus denier because I’m raising hell for being made to suffer mental anguish by being cut off from humanity.  What court tried me, convicted me, and sentenced me to solitary confinement?  Sorry, but the court of public opinion does not count.

It’s easy to dismiss and belittle the stress of another if it doesn’t match our personal experience, but such dismissal and belittling breeds anger, contempt, and, finally, division and hatred.  Once you dismiss and belittle another’s pain and experience (especially on the flimsily obvious ground that you’re doing so simply because you think your own stress is more ‘real’ and more ‘valid’), you have lost.  The other person might smile to your face, but they will never listen to, or trust, you again.

We’re in a critical time.  People are dying from this virus…and from the appalling mental health injuries our short-sighted policies inflict.  Don’t tell others to simply buck up, and never tell them they shouldn’t be upset because “at least” they don’t have your stress.  Recognize their stress is just as real and just as valid as yours, and that alone will keep the conversation genuine.

Genuine conversation leads to genuine understanding, which then leads to genuine compassion, which finally leads to everyone feeling supported and finding a healthier perspective.

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[1] Haney, Craig (3 November 2017). “Restricting the Use of Solitary Confinement”. Annual Review of Criminology. 1: 285–310. doi:10.1146/annurev-criminol-032317-092326. ISSN 2572-4568.

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