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Volunteers were the bridge that led us through the second wave of the COVID pandemic. They have been working day and night to procure and verify necessary medical resources and connect the individuals who need these most with the leads.
We might not be completely through with the second wave, but everyone can agree we are nearing the end. And we would not have reached here if it were not for the countless individuals who diverted their time, energy, and resources to make up for the overwhelmed medical system of the country.
By volunteering to take on this responsibility of saving someone’s life, COVID relief volunteers have put not just their physical health but also their mental health at risk.
The Struggles of a Volunteer
Thanks to the Mental Health Awareness work of the last decade or so, attending to the Mental Health Concerns during the lockdown have been a priority. Accessing care is still a luxury for many, but this is a start.
At the beginning of the previous month, we posted an article on the COVID-19 Task Force. I had the opportunity to attend the interview with the heads of different teams of the Task Force. During this interview, my attention was brought to the mental health concerns of this particular population – volunteers working for COVID relief.
“When I woke up in the morning, I saw a message from her. It said, “He is no more now.”
This is a quote from a volunteer named Aanya, who shared the struggles she and her team faced with India Today. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Mr Indrapal Neware, head of the requirement team, shared an instance where they received a call for resources at around 10 in the morning. The team was putting in their best efforts to find a lead for this patient. At 3 pm the same day, the team gets a phone call “the patient is no more”. This is only one among many similar instances the task force had to experience.
“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” – CS Lewis.
Loss, grief and Bereavement have been the elements of daily life for COVID relief volunteers. When he experienced the loss of his wife, CS Lewis compared the death of a loved one to amputation. In the quote above, he rightly puts the experience of grief as a process. It is an experience that expands through time so we can come to terms with it.
Within the same decade that the writer delves into grief in his book – A grief observed, psychiatrist Kübler-Ross postulated the five-stage model of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and acceptance.
Much of the death the volunteers faced was not of their blood relation or even friends. They heard the passing away news of complete strangers whose lives were suddenly dependent on the volunteers. The volunteers may have only worked for the patients for an hour. But in that hour, they had taken the responsibility to save these strangers, and as suddenly they came into each other’s lives, one was taken away. The volunteers experienced their own kind of grief – a process they did not have time or energy to accept due to the urgency of the work they did.
Ms Jyoti shared with us a particularly grim week where she had to hear of 5 deaths. These were people she had known or come to know but did not have even an hour to sit with the news and process it because others needed her help.
It is not just the countless deaths that plague them but also the general sense of helplessness and hopelessness that comes with the work. Each volunteer on the team made near hundred phone calls a day only to find 8 to 10 genuine available leads. At least 20 to 30 phone calls had to be made to find just one bed in the hospital. It was not just acquiring the resources but often the act of convincing patients and family members to avail the resources accessible to you at the moment that proved to be a source of frustration.
A conversation with Mental health Counsellor Anushka Karira brought to light that a common concern among volunteers was the loss of their support system due to the stigma COVID carries with itself. There is virtue in volunteering. Yet, sadly, it is often forgotten by those the volunteers need the most.
Abandonment, rejection and isolation circle their minds, eating at their resilience little by little.
A closer look will show us that these valid feelings exist on both sides. The volunteers feel rejected by their families for lack of support. The vice-versa is also true on the seeming lack of concern the volunteer shows for themselves and their family by choosing to help others.
The last couple of months have been challenging. It continues to be so for many. We can only do our part and hope that what we cannot control takes care of itself.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
“Aap Sahi Rahonge Tabhi Doosron ki madat Kar Paaonge” – Anushka Karira
The nature of the work may convince us to push our boundaries and keep working for hours on end. Taking a break from the important work you are doing may feel like a selfish thing to do. But you are only human. It is vital to take a break, eat and sleep well to be strong enough to lift others. The downside of not following through is burnout.
Burnout is a result of stress built-up within the body that one has not processed healthily. Counsellor Anushka Karira suggests you keep a lookout for its symptoms. They include –
- Continuous depleted energy/demotivation
- Pain in your body that occur with no apparent physical cause
- Being really silent for long periods of time
- Crying out of nowhere
If you observe any of these symptoms, it is time for you to take a break. Timely intervention in the form of breaks will allow you to avoid severe consequences. Fight the pangs of guilt and take time for yourself. In this period, do those things that make you feel complete and in touch with yourself.
Karira has shared with us certain activities to make this happen below. You can choose one that suits you best!
- Have a quiet conversation with close friends or family.
- Meditate (breathwork, mainly exhalation).
- Be with yourself in the absence of electronics, books or any sort of distractions.
- Go on a walk in nature (barefoot on the grass).
- Play with your pet
- Watch the calming moments of a fish in the water or clouds in the sky.
Digital detox was also a term we discussed. These feelings you may experience when volunteering are challenging to face. Social Media sites provide the best escape from having to deal with them. Refrain from falling into this trap. When you have decided the hours you are away from work, switch off the phone wifi. Only keep the ringtone on for one emergency contact. This will assist you in keeping the phone away while being reassured you would be at reach’s length in case of a severe emergency.
Reaching out to a Mental Health Professional like psychotherapist Anushka Karira is also advisable, especially if the symptoms observed are severe or sustained for a long time now.
Social Support is key to sustaining good mental health. At UPAY, we create this supportive environment within the teams in the Task Force. Each team head felt it was their responsibility to foster a supportive, caring environment for their volunteers. They emphasised the role of a leader in keeping the team motivated. In the face of disappointment, the team faces, all leaders reinforced the idea of keeping in mind those they could help and continue the work with the zeal everyone initially had. As for the leaders, they have each other along with the support of our founder Mr Varun Shrivastava.
These indeed have been challenging times. We are grateful to have those courageous and caring among us who have been the pillar to keep us strong. Thank you for your consistent efforts. This article is written in the hopes of making it easier for you to share your experience and equip yourself, just a little bit, to heal like you have been able to heal others.
Written by :Ananya Shetty