Queen’s medical student leads initiative supporting rural Canadians

RISE initiative focuses on rural communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19

The initiative connects medical student volunteers to individuals in vulnerable rural Canadian communities.
Journal File Photo

Medical students across Canada have teamed up to support Canadians living in rural and isolated communities during COVID-19. 

The Rural & Isolated Support Endeavor (RISE) is an initiative created by a working group of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada (SRPC). The group aims to address the mental health of community members who live in rural areas across Canada and are in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RISE initiative was co-founded by Queen’s medical student Anchaleena Mandal, Deanna Funk, a fourth-year medical student from the University of Calgary, and Ella Chochla, a second-year medical student from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. 

“[H]opefully [we can] make someone’s day a little brighter through support and companionship. Canadian medical students are stepping up to stand by our vulnerable population in rural Canada,” Mandal wrote in a statement to The Journal.

Medical student volunteers aim to provide relief for vulnerable rural Canadian communities, where many are suffering from isolation, illness, decreased mental wellness, and the loss of loved ones. 

Individuals over the age of 18 who are seeking support are matched with a medical student for weekly phone check-ins and social connections. According to Mandal, the initiative was modeled after the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership (SSIPP) developed by the University of Toronto.

The initiative offers services in both English and French, as well as correspondence in a number of other languages, depending on the particular skill set of volunteers. 

To sign up for the program, individuals are primarily referred by a physician, who will contact the organization and connect them with volunteers in the program. Those interested in taking the self-referral option can find the organization on Facebook and Twitter, or submit a self-referral form through email. 

“[Self-isolation increases] psychological impacts of chronic isolation ranging anywhere from loneliness, anxiety and depression to panic attacks and increased levels of paranoia,” Mandal wrote, explaining that a lack of social interaction can negatively impact the immune system and make individuals more vulnerable to illness, cancers, insulin resistance, and heart disease.

Rural community members face unique challenges during the pandemic because of the isolated nature of their living arrangements, according to Mandal.

She wrote that rural community members, who often rely on neighbors for socialization, have had their social routines curbed by physical distancing during the pandemic.

Mandal added remote populations have a disproportionate number of elderly citizens, who are among the most vulnerable to the effects of isolation.

She also warned there’s an increased risk of alcohol abuse in isolated Canadian communities and a greater risk of domestic violence.

“[T]he danger to victims of domestic violence in rural areas is higher than ever as they now have to stay in close quarters with their abuser,” Mandal wrote.

She also pointed to the specific impact COVID-19 has had on remote Indigenous communities. 

“Lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic may even be a fallacy in isolated communities,” Mandal wrote. “Prevailing social issues in these communities and reserves, such as crowded housing, lack of health professionals, unsafe drinking water, poor infrastructure and chronic disease can make the battle against COVID-19 even harder.” 

Circumstantial and environmental factors have also contributed significantly to the disproportionate effects of this pandemic on rural communities, Mandal explained.

Geographical distance from medical care has prevented quick access to emergency departments, and local clinics run solely by nursing staff have resulted in patients being flown out of their community to seek specialist physicians and medical equipment. 

With the approaching wildfire season, she wrote that rural communities will face increased anxieties as both natural disasters and the pandemic affect residents. 

As well, inequalities to the accessibility of high-speed internet have become more noticeable during COVID-19, as individuals in rural communities can’t participate in aspects of an online existence that have translated easily for city-bound Canadians. 

“During self-isolation, urban residents often turn to Netflix, online games and other forms of internet entertainment to pass extra time,” Mandal wrote. “Attending classes, completing work, skyping peers and friends or even watching a movie online is simply not possible [in rural communities]. Internet fees can be very expensive in rural areas with limited broad-band providers.” 

Acknowledging these challenges, Mandal said the RISE initiative is working to support rural citizens by providing routine social interaction and mental health support.

“If an individual is still struggling, local mental health counsellors and helplines are ready to support them,” Mandal wrote. “Of course, RISE is here for them too.” 

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