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Online peer support proving its worth as pandemic restricts face-to-face mental health services

Online peer support platforms are helping people across the country manage their mental health during the pandemic.

For many providers of mental health support, restrictions on face-to-face meetings has forced a shift online in order to continue delivering support for people in need.

Despite reducing in-person engagement, online peer support platforms provide safe spaces for many to open up about their mental health and engage in conversations they may not otherwise feel comfortable having.

The shift to online has seen several UK charities launch or renew their own peer support solutions, including Mind's Side by Side (an evolution of its previous Elefriends platform) and Mental Health UK's Clic.

Aiming to understand the impact of these platforms, a new study from the Scottish Recovery Network surveyed 174 peer support services and 101 participants from across Scotland.

According to the study's findings, the vast majority of participants found online peer support to be helpful, with 81% saying they felt better after accessing it.

The same percentage of participants said it was a flexible way to access support services, with many feeling it was easier to fit into their daily lives and engage in compared with face-to-face services, particularly for carers or people living in remote locations.

Participants also said that they had formed new connections with people, and had become more literate in terms of mental health language, which transferred over to other areas such as searching for support or speaking with friends and family.

Providers also reported advantages of online solutions, with 91% feeling it was a flexible way to work and many saying that online services helped them reach more people in need of support.

"At a time when many mental health services and supports were being withdrawn or reduced this is a great example of what being person centred and people focused means," says Louise Christie, Acting Director of the Scottish Recovery Network. "Taking peer support into the remote space is not always easy. It presents new challenges but offers a way for people to come together and support each other when meeting face-to-face is not possible."

Although the shift to online has been rapid – the report says that 90% of providers had set up a platform within a month of going into lockdown – many participants and providers alike have experienced challenges.

The report says that 98% of respondents experienced at least one issue, with a lack of suitable technology (not having a phone, tablet, computer, or a new enough device) being a key barrier.

A majority of providers (71%) said that not everyone understood the technology being used, while many also reported that technical issues would frequently interrupt the flow of conversation.

Despite the challenges, 61% of providers said that they planned to keep providing an online peer support platform for their customers, and all were keen to take a 'blended' approach of face-to-face services and online support in future.

"[The findings] show that we need to offer more choice for people in future and that is likely to include more use of digital platforms, telephone and other remote approaches," adds Christie. "The ability of peer support to adapt and change during Covid-19 lockdown should be celebrated and built on. Peer support needs to become a much more important and valued part of our mental health system."

To read the full Meaningful Connections report, click here.


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