Peer support has been part of the offer to children, young people, adults and families from both the public and voluntary sector for some time. The value of meeting and talking with people with shared experiences is well-evidenced, particularly for those who are less able to engage with professional support (Sokol and Fisher, 2016).
Peer support can help to increase feelings of hope, reduce isolation and improve the take-up of public health messages, such as breastfeeding. While there are other positive outcomes, these seem particularly relevant to our current situation and supporting each other through lockdown.
Meeting with people who have shared experiences during a crisis is important, because our current situation and our past experiences, particularly traumatic ones, shape the way we respond in an emergency.
For families who have been separated due to child protection concerns, lockdown and the reduction of face-to-face family time has created an even larger distance between parents and their children. Having the opportunity to talk about attachment, trust, relationships and remembering has a new immediacy for these families. New Beginnings in Greater Manchester supports families involved with children’s social care through groups and peer support relationships, including group sessions to explore emotions and responses, to support them to make positive changes. In this blog post, Jadwiga Leigh reflects on her experience of recreating ‘the magic of the group’ online.
For some people, living with anxiety and fear is not a new response to the current crisis, but a feature of their everyday lives related to mental health difficulties and/or previous trauma. Peer support offers a way of exploring their feelings and reactions in an understanding environment, without these responses being framed as a medical problem or something inherent in them as an individual (Mind.org.uk). Talking with people with shared experiences helps to identify tips and strategies for managing our mental health, encouraging participants to focus on their strengths and draw on their own experience to help others. Now we are all experiencing worry, and learning to cope with anxiety stemming from a rational response to the uncertainty about the future and The Dulwich Centre in Australia has supported a group of people who have experience of anxiety and panic to share their tips with the rest of us.
Peer support groups can help to amplify the voices of those involved, by using their collective voice to tell their stories to those with the power to bring about change. The Family Rights Group is supporting kinship carers to act as a group to highlight issues they are facing during lockdown through discussion groups supporting the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care and the rapid review of virtual hearings in the family courts.
Moving to digital
In coping with lockdown, many peer support groups have explored moving into the digital space to keep people connected and to share experiences. This create a number of issues that need to be thought through and resolved. There has been much discussion about the appropriateness of different online platforms for hosting sensitive or confidential discussions. Many peer support groups won’t have the capacity or skills to think through these decisions from scratch, so local authorities and partners might consider how they can share their knowledge and thinking with these groups. The Children’s Society has published a helpful blog outlining their approach to considering the safeguarding implications of various platforms.
Once assured that the technology is appropriate and the relevant technical safeguards are in place, organisations can then face the next hurdle, deciding on the appropriate levels of control, moderation and professional involvement in contact between peers. Peer-led support groups might find navigating this easier, without the myriad policies and procedures in larger organisations. But as Beth Ingram says in this excellent video about how peer led peer support charity Heart and Minds has moved its peer support groups online: ‘The risks aren’t necessarily more or less, when providing virtual support, it’s just different.’
Moving to digital delivery raises the possibility of excluding people who don’t have access to a computer, smartphone or broadband, and there are a number of initiatives, like Digital Access West Yorkshire, are seeking to bring communities together to source spare devices to distribute to those cut off from online support. But digital exclusion isn’t just a question of internet access and a laptop. Barriers might include a lack of digital skills, a lack of confidence or difficulties learning new skills in general, due to a disability or mental health issue. Previously, ‘getting someone online’ might mean regular classes, or face-to-face support at the library or from a trusted contact. Doing this while maintaining social distance can be a challenge.
Finding other ways
Whether digitally excluded, or just desperate to get off Zoom, groups are finding other ways of making contact and feeling connected. Volunteers from local communities are forming buddying networks to make regular contact through phone calls to tackle loneliness, organising events and undertaking little acts of kindness to help people feel socially close, while physically distant.
These actions are less visible online so I’m drawing on examples from my local community.
As I walk around my small town, I see signs that people are supporting each other from a distance by sharing gifts and resources. There is the child collecting stones, painting them with bright colours and messages, and leaving them on the doorsteps of friends and neighbours. Now she’s taking nominations from other people for the next recipient of a ‘stay safe’ stone. There’s the toy and book boxes emerging on street corners as people share their resources to keep the children entertained.
The examples above are asynchronous. To keep at a ‘social distance’, givers and receivers of kindness are separated in time as well as space. In our local isolation support group, we wanted to give people a sense of sharing time together, even if we can’t all be in the same place. We are running a virtual dinner party with food from a local restaurant, place settings, quizzes and decorations delivered to 50 homes where people are self-isolating or shielding. There will be a digital element for those who can access it, but we’ve thought really hard about how to help people feel connected who aren’t online. We’ve asked children to write letters, we’ve printed photographs of local landmarks and left a ‘write it forward’ notebook encouraging those at home to make a note. We’ll pass these on to someone new for the next dinner party, hopefully building connections that will last long beyond lockdown.
Next time you are out for your daily exercise, what signs can you spot that communities are connecting offline?