Isolation: A Double-Edged Sword For The Mentally Ill

March 19, 2014 Mike Ehrmantrout

One of the casualties of mental illness is often any kind of healthy social interaction. If we aren't careful, we can end up in a vortex of loneliness that serves only to make us feel worse about our mental health and cause our condition to deteriorate. Why do we, as people with mental illness, isolate ourselves?

We know it's not the best thing for us, but sometimes avoiding people is the only way we feel safe. When I'm in a deep depression, I don't feel safe. My posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes hypervigilance, which makes me feel paranoid and threatened. There is no trust in anyone besides the closest family members, and even they sometimes become a target of my distrust.

I go to my room, lock the door, get in bed and hide from the world. So what's wrong with that? If these steps help you to cope, help you to feel safe, it's fine, right? I say yes, it is fine, sort of. It's only fine to a point. There are times when things are so bad, the best thing is for me to be alone. However, when I make isolation a habit, it becomes unhealthy for me.

Habits, Like Isolation, to Cope With Mental Illness

The mentally ill often isolate themselves to cope with symptoms of mental illness. Isolation is common, but it isn't the best of coping skills. Learn more here.We know there are a myriad of situations in life where we see habits at work. We like the feeling drinking alcohol gives us, so we indulge. Eating our favorite comfort food gives us a tranquil feeling, so we overeat.

These things might seem unimportant, but if we develop a habit out of them, we could soon find ourselves in a deeper pit than before.

All these things can be abused and can cause great damage to our well being. It's the same principle with isolation. While it can make us feel better in the short-term, ultimately, the loneliness it brings to us is unhealthy.

Take Some Steps To Decrease Your Isolation

So how can we fight our urge to isolate? First, we must accept that however good it might feel at the time, isolating ourselves is counter-productive to our well being.

That one is hard for me. Isolation has become my friend, while being my enemy at the same time. I don't like to admit the injurious nature of my isolation.

Second, we must take concrete steps to end, or at least minimize, our isolation. Obviously, these steps will no doubt be small at first, but as long as we are moving toward health and away from unhelpful coping strategies, one inch is as good as a mile.

One way to start might be to reach out to people you haven't talked to or been around for awhile. It's easier to shoot off an email, and that's fine, but if you feel up to it, you could even use the telephone and reach out to just one or two people you feel at least somewhat safe with.

Another way to begin establishing connections is support groups. If actually going to a group is too daunting at first, there are websites such as HealthyPlace. Navigate to the HealthyPlace homepage and reach out in the forums found there, or connect with HealthyPlace on Facebook. So reach out. You can do it.

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APA Reference
Ehrmantrout, M. (2014, March 19). Isolation: A Double-Edged Sword For The Mentally Ill, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Author: Mike Ehrmantrout

March, 10 2015 at 12:50 pm

Sorry I put too many 9's in the telephone number to call to talk with a peer. The telephone number is 1-800-933-5397.

March, 10 2015 at 12:48 pm

I made a mistake in the phone number to call to speak with someone. The number is 1-800-933-5397. Sorry, I originally put two 9's at the end.

March, 10 2015 at 12:46 pm

I noticed that trying to talk to people about how you feel in a "selfie" society sometimes feels useless. Unless a person has suffered themselves, there seems to be a great lack of compassion. I pray to God Almighty to help me and there is a phone number you can call and talk to a mental health professional Monday - Friday and just talk for 15 minutes. The people who answer the phones are our peers. The telephone number is 1-800-933-53997. I find it helpful at times just to check in with another human being who is familiar with issues of depression and/or anxiety and the like. God bless all of you.

September, 2 2014 at 5:39 pm

hypervigilance - I love this word. I am going to try to use it often. I am not a social person. Mainly because of the reactions I got for being 'too needy.' And I was too needy. They were my only outlet. So, I keep to myself now. I go to DBSA groups and that is probably as social as I get. But, I'll keep trying.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
September, 4 2014 at 7:24 pm

Thanks for your comment, Gina. I like to hear you say you'll keep trying. That is all we can do sometimes. Good luck in reducing your isolation.

Linda Majewski
June, 22 2014 at 3:06 am

Oh, no worries Mike, I have a pretty off-beat sense of humor myself. :) "Isolated extrovert" - is that an oxymoron or a potential recipe for disaster? Perhaps a bit of both! I find it interesting that as I get older, I want more quiet time. But as a person who gets her energy from being around others I have to be very careful not to let "quite time" slip into prolonged isolation. Drags me down to a place that can be hard to pull myself out of. Ah, the joys of being a human!

June, 17 2014 at 1:00 am

Isolation has been my middle name since Feb 22, 2012. That is the date that I went on disability. Ever since then I have cut myself off from virtually everyone. Just the thought of being in public sends shivers of anxiety and now most recently paranoia down my spine. I force myself to go the YMCA everyday to swim and I have brief conversations with a few people but I mostly focus on my exercise. My best friend lives on the other side of the country and is always available but I feel like a burden. I feel like a burden to everyone. I also feel the stigma from having a mental illness has caused me to isolate myself. Everyone seems to have an answer and an opinion. It drives me crazy. Last night was the worst. I've been going to a spirituality group on Monday nights that is about an hour away from my home. About 2 hours before I left I became convinced that if I went to the group something bad was going to happen. I forced myself to go anyway, but I got about a 1/3 of the way there and I stopped the car turned around came home and went to bed. I just couldn't do it anymore. In a way I am glad that I have to leave the house today to go to therapy. After that I will go to the Y to go swimming. After that I will head home and go straight back to bed. I need help. I have a psychiatrist and 2 psychologists and I've been through a partial hospital program twice. I don't know of any support groups in my area. But like I said I need help. This is no way to live. Any replies would be welcomed.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
June, 17 2014 at 6:21 am

Hi, Dawn. Thanks for commenting. Sorry you're suffering right now. It sounds to me like you're very committed to your recovery, but you just get discouraged sometimes. When you say you feel like a burden, I believe that's just the depression talking. If you were a burden, I don't think your friend would make him/herself available for you. I think the biggest thing with this issue is good self-care and self-awareness. For example, you talked about forcing yourself to go but eventually turning around. Now, that could be seen as a defeat because you went home. But I see it more of a success in your self-care because sometimes even if a thing is good, it can be hurtful to you if it triggers other bad thoughts or emotions. So I really honor your awareness of your own limitations. Keep up the fight!

Linda Majewski
June, 16 2014 at 12:47 pm

Great post, Mike! As a person living with depression - and even though I'm a textbook extrovert - sometimes I need a bit of "alone time." But recognizing when it has gone from time to regroup to time spent sliding downhill into the abyss can be tough. Knowing how accepting connections can help, we're starting a Compeer friendship program in Delaware. I shared your blog post on our Facebook page - thanks for writing the post and for your insightful responses to the comments!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
June, 17 2014 at 6:09 am

Hi, Linda. Thanks for the comment. I love talking to isolated extroverts. :) That sounds funny to me. Please know I'm not making fun of you at all, it's just that i have kind of a strange sense of humor. Thanks for sharing the article on your Facebook page!

moira melrose
June, 16 2014 at 7:43 am

I'm not in total isolation but I avidly read papers and books my heart is in my home with my family,what jobs worth says I have to go out the world scares me to death

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
June, 17 2014 at 5:59 am

Moira-Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you're not in total isolation. I hear you, it can be very scary to go out especially when it's been a long time. Our homes are our refuge and the only place we can feel safe sometimes. So again, it becomes a real balancing act. I think it's important to not become too extreme where we
say "I HAVE to leave" even though we are feeling so freaked out. It can become its own anxiety trip and we don't need more of that. So we must be wise and balanced in how we deal with ourselves in this. Otherwise we could be trading one problem for another.

Nancy March
April, 21 2014 at 12:06 pm

but then i do go to a support group
that helps

Nancy March
April, 21 2014 at 12:05 pm

sometimes isolation is better than arguing with people who dont understand my illness ,and always try to bring me up to their level

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
April, 21 2014 at 12:50 pm

You nailed it, Nancy! Sometimes isolation does help, and that's exactly why it is so dangerous. It both helps and hurts us. Just like anything, too much of something good can be disastrous. Isolation is clearly one of those things. Glad to hear you go to a support group. Please keep going because sometimes that is our only source of human contact and we need others. Thanks for the comment!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 18 2021 at 8:08 pm

Perfectly said.

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 31 2014 at 10:05 am

Hi. Dr. Ferati.
I love how you expressed it: "The main dilemma in emotional performance of any patient with mental disorder is the phenomenon of double fear: the fear of friendship and the fear of isolation."
I only wished I'd written that myself in the piece, because I think it's a terrific way of explaining the paradox and explaining why it's so hard to break out of the cycle.
Thanks for commenting.

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 31 2014 at 9:57 am

Hi, Jen.
I really feel for you having a child whose mental illness causes him to do things that aren't healthy for them. In fact, my son also has a mental illness and has a terrible problem with isolation.
Since your son is in college, I'd encourage you to get in touch with the resources they have on campus to help those with disabilities. Thankfully, many colleges offer trained mental health professionals on campus. They would also be a great resource for community support. I would definitely start there. I hope it goes well. Thanks for commenting.

Dr Musli Ferati
March, 29 2014 at 9:17 pm

The main dilemma in emotional performance of any patient with mental disorder is the phenomenon of double fear: the fear of friendship and the fear of isolation. This inextricable social situation, on the other hand overloaded the course and definitive prognosis of respective mental disease. However, it ought to make effort to restablish interpersonal relation each person with mental difficulties in order to ovoid social isolation, as desperation experience of any psychiatric patient.Indeed, isolation from daily social flowing cause the miserable sense of lonesome, with many devastate consequences on global welfare. Beside these fruitful benefits of social participation, the maintenance of interpersonal relations improve the process of rehabilitation, as primordial intention of current psychiatric treatment and management of mental disorders. In consequence, each psychiatric patient should to include oneself in common social events to prevent evil outcome of metal illness.

Jen S.
March, 27 2014 at 6:00 am

Mike - what do you think parents should do for their kids who try to isolate themselves? My child is in college, and when depression comes he just stays in his room, skips classes, and hides. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks for this article; I will definitely share it with him, too.

Erin Schulthies
March, 26 2014 at 4:45 pm

This is such an important topic when it comes to mental illness. Isolation is so tempting for me, especially because I'm an introvert who just loves to curl up with a book for hours at a time. I try to remind myself that human beings are social creatures and that I need other people, even when I feel like avoiding them. Great post!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 27 2014 at 4:28 am

Hi, Erin. Thanks for your comment. It certainly makes it more challenging when you are just naturally the kind of person who really enjoys being alone. It's encouraging to hear you say you "remind" yourself of your need for human interaction. It shows you've learned to express healthy self-talk. I applaud you and encourage you to continue to build up your coping skills.

Deborah Polard
March, 21 2014 at 5:11 pm

Isolation has definitely been my friend when I simply couldn't bear to be around other people. A few tried to break through my barriers, but no one could. I had to come out by myself.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 27 2014 at 4:33 am

Thanks for your comment, Deborah. It's true, no one can do it for us. I wish they could sometimes. But though they can't do it for us, they can definitely help us along our way. This is one of the values of human interaction is that we learn from others how they have learned to cope with things. Good job taking a big step toward recoverery!

chris rousseau
March, 21 2014 at 3:48 pm

I have mental illness and have had a lot of medical problems recently. Starting to questions who are my real friends. I have repeatly reached out to a few friends since moving but unfortunately these people don't care enough to call me back or answer there phone. So would you say they are real friends. Since moving out of a bad living environment hardly of them can be bothered now that I have called them numerous times. I am working with someone to build healthy relationships and weed out friends that are unreliable.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 27 2014 at 4:38 am

Hi, Chris. Thanks for commenting. I'm glad to hear you're working with someone to help you with these tough issues. Don't give up just because there's people who don't seem to care, because there are many people who really do care. I commend you for moving toward healthy recovery.

March, 21 2014 at 7:42 am

Hard to keep reaching out to a world who is always too busy...
Very discouraging when it takes a lot to muster up a positive attitude and create an upbeat email or text asking when someone can get together.... Only to be met with no reply or replies days later stating sorry we were busy..sorry I missed you...
People suck.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 27 2014 at 4:43 am

Haha, Jane. I like to put it like this. "People suck, and I are one." People are definitely challenging and many times it's just plain easier to live without them. But again, it's what we lose when we isolate. Because, as I know you know, there are actually some people who don't suck. It may take work to find them, but they're out there. Thanks for commenting.

audra corente
March, 21 2014 at 4:53 am

I find myself in isolation all the time. I only interact with my husband and kids. Now, I have a job working with autistic kids now, so i have to force myself to get out there and do it. I have anxiety about doing that and i freak out but i get through it and tell myself I'll get over it. I know I'm different than my colleaguesandwe are all trained to spot mental illness, so I panic about being found out. I find myself telling ppl I have bipolar disorder just to alleviate my stress when it's really none of their business.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
March, 27 2014 at 4:54 am

Thanks, Audra. I found it interesting when you said you "panic about being found out." That's a good example of the effects of mental illness stigma. I feel the same way many times. And that's another reason we do isolate, because we're afraid of being exposed when we don't want to be. That's a tough one. But it's awesome that you are out there working and doing good for others. Perhaps you can find a way to quench that fear of exposure, or at least to change your thinking on it so it doesn't have to rise to the level of panic.

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