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Coronavirus welfare advice: Virtual support

The University Counselling Service has produced a series of articles and podcasts to support students during the coronavirus pandemic. This time, we explore how virtual and remote support is more vital than ever during the unprecedented and unpredictable time of COVID-19 to connect and support each other. 

In this unprecedented and unpredictable time of COVID-19, virtual and remote support is more vital than ever. We can create virtual spaces to connect and support each other appropriately. Social distancing does not always have to equal feeling lonely or isolated.

The lockdown is impacting everyone differently. For some, there could be an increased sense of uncertainty, especially around health, employment, academic work, finances and future plans. This can then in turn result in fluctuations in mood and mental health. People cope in many diverse ways; some might worry for example and feel really stuck in unhelpful thinking patterns. As people need to socially isolate, they can feel more distanced from support networks such as friends and family. This all means that virtual connection is important.

You can do a lot to help! Connect with people in a meaningful way and be prepared to have some courageous conversations. Now is the time to hold each other in mind and to reach out. You can make that social distance a bit smaller. All you need to do is ask ‘how are you?’ and be prepared to listen to how they feel and think.

It can be helpful to explore the personal barriers to having courageous conversations. What gets in the way of us having virtual supportive conversations? There could be fears around getting it wrong, not knowing what to say, feeling powerless to help, or feeling like the Not Good Enough Friend. Whatever gets in the way – notice those thoughts, feelings and physical reactions and do what matters, don’t let those inner experiences get in the way of doing something that is important to you. Reaching out to others.

Think about the timing of the conversation (is there enough time for this conversation, is the timing right for you and them?), and the location (is there privacy and can they speak freely?) Real listening is effortful, takes concentration, takes space and takes time. Think whether this is something you are willing to offer at this moment in time. Notice any understandable tendencies to send solutions, offer fixes or avoid concerns by minimising. Try to listen with empathy, openness and awareness that you don’t need to take responsibility for their problem, you just need to hear it.

Virtual spaces can vary. There could be one-to-one spaces – for more confidential chats. Or group events – which may or may not have a theme or shared activity. Sometimes dancing or moving is more energising than just talking. Vary it, be creative with how you connect.

Supporting others can be really tiring and challenging. It is important to think about your own internal limits and how you express boundaries through assertive communication where suitable and appropriate. Make sure to look after yourself. Be clear with the amount of time you wish to spend on helping or supporting others. Think about where you can refer people, what services are out there? Boundaries are important so you don’t burn out or begin to feel resentful. When setting boundaries, you might feel guilty or selfish – and yet boundaries are vital. Boundaries can be directly and indirectly communicated – you might delay in replying to a message, reduce the amount of talking time, arrange a different time or day to speak or say that you care about them and want them to get support from another service that could help in a more focused way.  

Remember that the success of your listening and supporting isn’t the outcome of removing or solving the problem but that you listened and supported fully. We can’t always make someone happy, but we can help someone to feel heard.

By Dr Timothy Knowlson

University of Oxford Peer Support Programme Manager

For a range of additional supportive resources, go to the Counselling Service webpages, or visit the coronavirus student advice page for more general information about the impact of coronavirus.