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Online peer support plugs mental health gap during pandemic, Scottish Recovery Network finds

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Online peer support plugs mental health gap during pandemic, Scottish Recovery Network finds

Online peer support has helped those with mental health problems during the pandemic and offers advantages that may see it continue after restrictions have ended, new research has found.

The ‘Meaningful Connections’ research was carried out by the Scottish Recovery Network, which works to promote recovery from mental health problems.

It is based on a survey filled in by 174 peer support services and 101 participants across Scotland, as well as in-depth interviews with 10 providers and six participants.

The survey found that the online support had been helpful, with 81 per cent of participants saying they felt better after accessing remote peer support.

Other benefits identified included that participants made new contacts, sometimes in other parts of Scotland or abroad, and that they became more technically literate, with those skills transferable to uses outside the group, such as looking online for support, socialising online with family and friends or following other interests online.

The majority of providers and participants felt this was a flexible approach, with 91 per cent of providers saying it was a flexible way to work and 81 per cent of participants saying it was a flexible way to access services.

Both participants and providers noted benefits of holding remote sessions.

Some participants saved time and money from not having to travel to sessions and found it easier to fit into daily life, while provider feedback suggested that the remote support could reach a higher number and wider range of people, including those in remote areas, those with caring commitments and people who would not engage with traditional in-person services.

The change to digital services was very rapid after lockdown, with 43 per cent of the providers setting up a remote peer support service straight away and 90 per cent within a month.

Most providers had never worked this way before and the majority – 84 per cent – had set up the remote service because they could not provide their usual service.

However, there were also challenges with the move to digital.

Lack of access to technology was found to be a key barrier to engagement with remote peer support.

Some potential participants and providers did not have a phone, tablet or computer to use.

Others did not have a new enough device to support the platforms or found the cost of data or minutes prohibitive.

There was a steep learning curve for many in learning to use platforms such as Zoom, and dealing with technical issues was a frequent challenge for facilitators and for the flow of conversation.

Almost all – 98 per cent – of the facilitators said they had experienced at least one challenge and 71 per cent said not everyone understood the technology.

However, the survey also found that at permanent change to more online support was likely, with 61 per cent of providers saying they planned to continue providing remote peer support after restrictions lifted.

All of those interviewed said they intended to take a blended approach of both remote and face-to-face support in future.

Scottish Recovery Network’s acting director, Louise Christie, said: “The ability of peer support to adapt and change during COVID-19 lockdown should be celebrated and built on.

“The Meaningful Connections research again shines a light on the essential role of the third sector in providing accessible mental health support that meets the needs of the community.

“Digital is not seen as a replacement for face-to-face peer support but as an additional approach that can provide access, choice and meaningful connections.”

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