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Published: 11 June 2020

Community calls bring kindness and compassion to lonely shielders

Karishma Thakrar, a third-year Psychology undergraduate, has been volunteering for the NHS as a telephone responder to support isolated and vulnerable people.

Image of Karishma Thakrar

Around 2.5 million people across the UK were advised to stay at home during the Covid-19 pandemic after they were identified as being at high risk of needing hospital treatment for coronavirus symptoms.

Such groups have included cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, people with severe respiratory conditions and pregnant women with conditions such as heart disease.

Psychology undergraduate and asthma-sufferer, Karishma Thakrar, was shielding at her family home in Forest Hill for the first few weeks of lockdown. Karishma is a long-serving volunteer for good causes, with experience of giving up her time and raising funds for charities such as MacMillan, Mind and Mencap. As a teenager she earned the prestigious Jack Petchey Achievement Award for helping to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health problems.

So when the NHS called for volunteers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Karishma immediately registered her interest online. She was offered a choice of roles and settled on a ‘check and chat’ telephone position which allowed her to support others while shielding at home herself. She explains:

“Vulnerable people either refer themselves to the ‘check and chat’ service by calling 0808 196 3646 or their GPs refer them. I have access to a mobile app which I use to register my availability to make phone calls. The app then assigns me a patient to call. It’s unlikely that I will talk to the same patient more than once as there are lots of other responders in my area.”

So what kind of questions does Karishma ask people to help them feel less isolated? “I will ask them how they are; how are they feeling; what they have been up to that day and if they have spoken to their family or friends recently. Mainly I just listen to them. The lockdown has been difficult for many people, but especially for shielding groups. These people can feel cut off from the world at what has been a very frightening time for many of them.”

Karishma has been able to draw on the professional experience she built up during her placement year at Queen Mary’s Hospital, where she provided low-intensity Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Karishma has already spoken to 10 different patients, with calls typically lasting an hour. Even though shielding groups have now been advised that they can leave their homes, Karishma believes that many people will feel too afraid, explaining:

“There are lots of people with terminal conditions who are still afraid to go out in case they catch the virus. I expect that the need for this telephone service will continue for some time. I believe that there were already a lot of lonely people in society before Covid-19 but I suspect that the pandemic and its aftermath will only compound that, which could lead to an outbreak of mental health problems. There is a big link between loneliness and poor mental health. I am happy to keep volunteering for as long as necessary.”

Karishma is encouraging others to get involved if they can spare some time, saying: “This type of volunteering role is very flexible and it can work around your schedule. It’s not a 9-5 position, which

was important to me because I was writing up my finalised dissertation when I first signed up. The role is really rewarding. If you are the kind of person who likes to ask people how they are, and have a friendly chat with others, then this could be a great role for you.”

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