The screen of my laptop brightened up as the next patient appeared in time for her telemedicine visit. The attending physician and I smiled and greeted this typically genial 73-year-old woman—let’s call her “Mariana”—as she forced a reciprocal grin. Mariana’s husband passed away from pneumonia three months prior, shortly after recovering from COVID-19. She spoke about how difficult it was not having him in her life and how her home had felt so empty since he passed. Mariana then told us about the aching pain in her shoulders and how social distancing had been weighing on her. After ruling out dangerous causes of the pain, the attending physician asked about depressive symptoms, which Mariana reticently denied.
Now many months into the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us in the United States are struggling with the suffocating feeling of being stuck at home around the clock without any clear end in sight. This phenomenon has colloquially been termed “COVID fatigue,” and it encompasses the psychosocial stress of being disconnected from the larger world. Unsurprisingly, researchers have been detecting upticks in mental disorders like major depression and anxiety disorders. This is especially alarming when considering the disproportionate impact of this abnormal lack of social connectedness on vulnerable populations, such as our elderly adults like Mariana.
We all have an undeniable need to belong, and social deprivation—particularly being separated from the most important people in our lives—is known to deteriorate our physical wellbeing. Without adequate social support, we start to feel disconnected from our purpose in life, which often saps our motivation to take care of ourselves. As I looked into Mariana’s doleful eyes, I could feel her pain. It made me reflect on the social support I receive regularly and how there are so many people in our communities who need that connection with other people, especially during a time when social disconnectedness is all too familiar.
As we continue to adhere to the public health guidelines to protect ourselves and others, what can we do to address the increasing seriousness of COVID fatigue and waning mental wellness?
As one of the National Student Response Network (NSRN) directors, I uphold that one of the most effective solutions lies in volunteerism. Both observational and interventional studies have demonstrated that volunteerism yields many benefits for the volunteer: enhanced resilience in the face of stress, a deepened sense of mastery and competence, and prosocial tendencies. In many direct ways, giving one’s time when possible can break the exhausting monotony of the COVID-19 era and raise others like Mariana out of the gloom of life’s unfortunate turns.
Composed of health profession students from all across the country, our organization focuses on connecting capable, eager students with efforts to either slow the spread of the novel coronavirus or deal with its psychosocial and societal impact. Recently, we have made a point to address the specific needs of people like Mariana. By drawing on our volunteer network’s energy, we are bringing purpose back to the daily work of around 6,000 volunteers who have faced disruptions in their education and bringing light to the Marianas of our country.
Examples of what we are doing include delivering personal protective equipment to hard-hit health care facilities, preparing and serving meals to elders living on Native American reservations, and, soon, facilitating the widespread administration of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. In connecting people in need to health professionals in training, we are also cultivating a gentler, more empathetic cohort of professionals who will be better suited to tend to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people in the aftermath of this pandemic.
Social connectedness is the remedy to the COVID fatigue that is running rampant in the United States. We need to stay connected to those we love. At the same time, we must also recognize that life is going on in the age of COVID-19, which means what happened to Mariana is occurring in all of our communities. Vulnerable populations need our help, and in our case, NSRN is working to be there for them through this uncertain time. We encourage all Americans to seek out opportunities to become more socially connected through volunteering. There are opportunities all across the country to provide much-needed support both remotely and in person. Just giving a little of your time can be a game-changing decision for people like Mariana, especially during the upcoming holiday season.
Ashten Duncan is a medical student.
Image credits: Shutterstock.com