How writing letters can fight pandemic depression

By: Ilan Mann

October 14, 2020

Life-giving responses to COVID-19 can include:

      Physical distancing;
      Mask-wearing in public spaces;
      Handwritten letters; or,
      All of the above.

The answer is four. Yes, actually. Handwriting letters to loved ones can make a big impact in the era of COVID-19—especially in addressing the health crisis offshoot of the virus, the depressing effect of social isolation. We all know it first hand after too many draining Zoom calls: the threat of loneliness is very real. One study published in the academic journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences put it bluntly: “Loneliness kills people.”

“Social isolation, or a lack of social opportunity, gives rise to a sense of loneliness,” say the McGill and Oxford researchers in the study. “Directly or indirectly, this feeling has many wide-ranging consequences for our psychological well-being as well as our physical health, even our longevity.”

We have more ways to connect with others than ever before—even in a public health crisis that demands physical distancing even from our closest family. But many of these methods of “connection” don’t provide the jolt of warmth and community that comes from face-to-face social contact. Texting, WhatsApp messaging, video and phone calls—they just don’t feel the same.

It’s not only you who feels that way.

Two academic experts on the topic—one a professor of organizational behaviour and the other a psychologist—have written that “meeting online increases our cognitive load, because several of its features take up a lot of conscious capacity.” These experts point to the increased difficulty of noticing and processing non-verbal social cues during video calls, the lack of natural conversational rhythm caused by freezing streams and choppy audio…even looking at our own faces constantly can be stress-inducing!

Amazingly, writing letters to and receiving letters from our loved ones is a far more positive social experience than the looping roller coaster of daily video calls. We aren’t the first to notice this. To support lonely children during the pandemic, Kids Help Phone organized a letter-writing campaign where kids from across Canada could share letters of encouragement—a global, open-concept pen pals’ program. There’s an Ohio-based non-profit organization called Love For Our Elders whose sole mission is to share love with lonely seniors by empowering strangers to write them letters. Even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is getting in on the action, encouraging employees to write letters to elderly relatives to “brighten your loved one’s day.”

One advocate for letter-writing as a balm for the isolation of COVID-19 is Nashville social entrepreneur Courtney Cochran. Through her organization Shut-In Social Club, Courtney connects potential pen pals across the country and empowers Americans to write letters of encouragement to strangers. Courtney calls letter-writing during the pandemic “a silver lining on a very gray cloud. We just need it right now, more than ever…” Americans agree: the U.S. Postal Service reported higher product sales, including stamps, in April 2020, and also published survey results showing one in six American consumers were sending more mail to loved ones during the pandemic.

Now, you’re reading this and thinking: This sounds like a wonderful thing to do in your personal life. But why not your professional life?

Think about it. Your customers, donors, and leads are people just as much as your friends and family are. They’re feeling the same weight of isolation we all are – the strain of too many video calls, missed family time, the loss of their favourite hobbies and social activities.

We often think about ways to offer an open heart and a shoulder to cry on for those we love. Why not those our business depends on as well? Here at Postalgia, we know about the power of handwritten letters. We help businesses, charities, and other organizations produce and send them at-scale, to create an intimate personal connection with thousands of contacts.

Consider sending our handwritten letters to your professional contacts—not to sell anything, but to offer something. Offer to help. Offer to hear. Offer to offset some of the hurt they have experienced due to this pandemic—a pain we have all experienced in our own way. Use handwritten letters to commit a humble good: letting them know you’re here, you’re living this too, and we’re all in it together.

Doctors, nurses, grocery store staff, and other essential and frontline workers—these are the folks carrying the heaviest weight in the fight against the pandemic. But we all have a part to play. And maybe your part is the simple, radical act of sending a letter, to let someone know you care.