Loneliness in the U.S. reached alarming proportions two years ago, according to a national survey conducted by Cigna in which nearly half of 20,000 adults said they sometimes or always feel alone.
Imagine what that survey might look like this year. Then imagine what it might look like for those already challenged by mental illness when the novel coronavirus took on pandemic proportions in March.
It helps explain why Compeer of Buffalo seeks phone buddies for 300 people who could use a lift through a weekly call or online chat.
“The tagline for Compeer is ‘The healing power of friendship,” said Tim Boling, CEO of Compeer Inc., a worldwide organization based in Buffalo that provides nonclinical support to thousands of people in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Australia.
Those interested in becoming a phone buddy should call 883-3331, Ext. 312. You will be asked to complete a form, go through a background check and two-hour online training and then choose from one of three or four people on a waiting list (Compeer calls it an “engagement list”) with similar interests.
The new program adds to other Compeer offerings that include a longstanding one-to-one matching program where people meet for four hours each month (this now operates by phone or online); weekly engagement list member group gatherings that in different times take place in person; a youth advisory committee that works with middle and high school students; and Mental Health First Aid, eight-hour training sessions that teach people how to help someone through mental illness, including a crisis.
“Having that friend on the other end of the phone is for many of our clients lifesaving, especially at this time,” said Boling, who has led the nonprofit for almost four years.
Q: Does a phone buddy need to be someone who also has a mental health diagnosis?
It can be anyone. We have volunteers from across all age groups. Our two biggest age groups are in their mid-20s and in their mid-40s. The group in their mid-40s are generally folks in the helping fields, teachers and nurses and folks that are used to providing help in the jobs that they're doing. It's ingrained in their DNA. The group in their mid-20s just got out of college maybe two or three years, just started their careers. They are more open to talking about mental health and they all pretty much know somebody that is struggling. One in five individuals in your community at any time have a mental health challenge.
Maybe 15% to 20% of our volunteers might have their own diagnosed mental health challenge. They’re managing their mental health challenges and doing all the things they're supposed to be doing, then they want to give back. And they make some of the strongest impact.
When we match face to face, we consider mutual interest and geography, because you may not want to travel 30 miles to go see somebody to fulfill your obligation. Here, we don't care about the geographic piece. Somebody who is a volunteer who signs up might say, “I really like the Bills and I like hockey," and we look for clients who indicated the same on their form, so they can have a lot of meaningful conversation.
Q: What special challenges have folks with mental health needs faced during the pandemic?
If you have a diagnosed mental health challenge around anxiety or depression, which would be two of our largest ones, isolation has exacerbated things. A lot of people fear that they're either going to catch the virus or family members are going to catch the virus. … so what we're seeing from a lot of our clients is a lot of fear. Phone buddies are even more important now to really help people navigate that.
Q: Does mental illness pose a higher risk for other illnesses, including Covid-19?
The direct correlation between mental health and physical health is very, very strong. If you're not exercising, you're not motivated to go out and do things that you need to be doing to stay healthy. You may get lax on taking medication. You may be staying up all night because you have time to stay up all night. And all those things contribute toward the demise of your mental health.
Q: What are volunteers advising folks in terms of steps to take to avoid infection and to keep Covid-19 in the proper perspective?
The same thing everybody else is telling them. Wash your hands. Don't go out if you don't need to go out. Follow the law and all the rules. Wear a mask if you're going to go into the grocery store.
We talk a lot here about the importance of what we call “The Big Five.” You’ve got to do these things that are within your control to help your mental health. Eating healthy is really crucial. When you don't get what you need nutrition-wise, it really slows you down. Good sleep is so crucial. Get seven to eight hours. Get to bed at 11, 12 o'clock, at the latest. Connect with family and friends. You have a friend here at Compeer but you should also be reaching out to other people for support.
Get outside. The weather's getting better, and breaking up your day and going for a walk is important. Get exercise. It gives you what you need relative to your mental health.
The overarching of the big five is that you need a routine. You need to get up every day and do your routine. You need to be doing it consistently.
No medication or anything else is going to help you if you're not taking care of yourself.