Social reintegration the next pandemic mental health crisis

BOSTON — When it comes to the psychological problems associated with the pandemic, loneliness and isolation are yesterday’s news.

Certainly, there are still many seriously struggling with the solitude imposed by remote school and work, but lately, something totally opposite is fueling some of the anxiety: social reintegration.

Or, as it’s more commonly known, ‘getting back to normal.’

“It has been a topic of conversation lately, just talking about planning for reentry,” said Natalie Dattilo, Director of Psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “And how to reacclimate to being social creatures again. Whether that’s in the workplace or social settings or just day-to-day normal sort of routine stuff.”

Not only were our lives upended a year ago, but the disruption persisted. Dattilo said that’s what will make it difficult, for some, to quickly readjust back.

“We are creatures of habit,” Dattilo said. “So a lot of our experience of things is determined by how frequently we do them. We all went through a very dramatic and, in some cases, traumatic shift in our lifestyle where we were going into the office or not going into the office anymore and we had to make some pretty rapid accommodations around that change.”

And to be sure, some changes may have permanence.

“I think this has been if nothing else an opportunity for some deep self-reflection -- kind of thinking about your life, the way it was, what you miss, what you’re looking forward to, what you want to go back to and maybe what you don’t,” Dattilo said. “And really coming to terms with some things. That maybe you don’t want it to go back to the way it was and maybe some other decisions about what to do next and how you want to live your life going forward.”

Along with those big decisions -- there will be the little ones, too -- that still might provoke outsized anxiety.

“I’m a little concerned about going to concerts,” said Mary Ellen Stokes, a library worker in Dedham. “It could be years before I decide to do it. I’d like to go to Fenway because it’s outside. But I’m worried about that, too.”

“I think it’s gonna take, probably six months of sort of recognizing and believing that it’s okay to not worry about touching a doorknob and getting too close,” said Nigel Smith, a father of two from Westwood. “But I think gradually it will start feeling normal, it’ll start feeling better.”

Smith thinks part of the turning point will involve feeling confident about the efficacy of the vaccines.

“And as there’s more confidence, heck yeah, let it rip,” Smith said. “Let’s all hug and feel good about getting on the other side of this pandemic.”

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