As International Friendship Day was marked last Friday, a time when people should be celebrating a sense of human unity to overcome some of the world’s most pressing social issues, it may be fitting to reflect on our society and how we “do” friendship.
After more than a year of lockdowns, necessitated by the Covid pandemic, it would be an understatement to say some people are experiencing lockdown fatigue.
However, the question that arises is whether the problem of social isolation was caused, or was simply made more obvious, by the pandemic.
According to the Western Cape government, nine percent of teenage deaths in SA are the result of suicide.
Journalist student Thaakiera Ackerdien explains isolation is a key contributor to depression in young people, but fewer than one in four teenagers who commit suicide sought help before attempting to end their lives.
Isolation due to the pandemic seems particularly relevant.
Dudley Tarlton, programme specialist, health and development, United Nations Development Programme Istanbul, dis- cusses his concerns regarding people who experienced the lockdowns in isolation and suggests the pandemic has caused an escalation of mental health problems.
Is this really the case though?
Long before Covid, authors such as Jean Twenge and David Brooks warned about the growing sense of isolation experienced by young people, especially teenagers.
Twenge interviewed a young teen, focusing mainly on how she chose to spend her holidays.
Surprisingly, if it were not for the date of the article, one could mistake Twenge’s piece for a reflection on how the current lockdowns are experienced.
This 13-year-old, Athena, stated she had spent nearly the entire holiday in her bedroom, communicating with friends electronically, with little personal contact.
While this might seem strange, it is, in fact, the norm for many young people.
Brooks reports young people are increasingly experiencing a sense of isolation, which has led to an increase in the number of children with mental health issues, and that between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of young Americans suffering from mental health issues increased from 5.9% to 8.2%.
One should thus consider the likelihood that this problem was present before the pandemic.
Although American political philosopher Michael Sandel offers a slightly different explanation of the causes of mental health issues in young people, it is conceded they manifest in an amplified sense of isolation, lead- ing many young people to turn to substances.
For some, it seems the isolation has been present in their lives for much longer than Covid.
If one accepts that even before the pandemic isolation was the norm, one gains new insight into the “normal” social relations that existed before the lockdowns.
We should, perhaps, consider those who do not experience friendships in the way many of us take for granted.
We should think of how the problem of isolation experienced by young people could be solved, and appreciate our friendships, especially friends with whom we have maintained close contact throughout the lockdown period, and who have supported us in isolation.
Brown and Mellon are scholars at the University of Pretoria.