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How to support family and friends who are struggling in lockdown – from afar

By Lisa Salmon
Increasing numbers of people are struggling with the pandemic restrictions – and under normal circumstances, they’d probably need a hug.

Research released by the Mental Health Foundation in December found key indicators of distress among UK adults – including loneliness, suicidality and not coping well with stress – were worse than at the start of the pandemic.

Even if you’re not feeling too bad about the situation yourself, chances are you’ll know someone who is, and you might feel there’s not a lot you can do to help them during the current lockdown. But don’t let the lack of physical proximity to your friends and family put you off helping them through the crisis.

“This period is proving very, very stressful for many people,” says consultant psychologist Dr George Fieldman , a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist.

“The term social distancing is misleading – what we need is behavioural spacing, that’s a much better term. Social distancing has all sorts of implications which are totally unnecessary and actively counter-productive to stopping the spread of the virus.”

“We want to have as much social contact as possible, but in safe ways i.e. by video call or on the phone. Socially engaged but behaviourally spaced makes it easier to cope, and makes it less likely that people will break the rules.”

Fieldman says there’s still plenty you can do to help friends and family from a distance if they’re struggling during the lockdown. Here are a few of his tips…

Schedule regular calls
Don’t just ring struggling friends and family when you’ve got a spare moment or if you’re bored yourself.

“Schedule in very regular chats, so it’s a standard check-in, and everyone you’re close to has some form of regular contact on a daily basis,” advises Fieldman. “The default assumption should be that they’re struggling. Regular contact will make both parties feel better, and could even enhance a community feeling.”

Get them talking honestly
It’s easy for people to just say they’re fine if you ask them how they are – and it’s also easy to accept that without question.

But Fieldman advises “Repeat the question – say ‘How are you?’ and then ‘How are you really?’ That way you might get a more honest answer.”

Tell them how you’re feeling
“If you start revealing your own concerns, then it’s easier for somebody else to talk about theirs,” says Fieldman. “So if you say you’re feeling miserable, they might say ‘Yes, I’m feeling a bit grim too’. Encourage them to speak from the heart.”

Have a distanced film night
Fieldman says it’s a good idea to discuss a film with friends or family members, and then watch it at an agreed time and catch up afterwards to discuss what you made of it – or parts you didn’t understand.

Organise a distanced dance party
Another option is to create a Spotify playlist of dance music with the help of friends and family, and organise a dance party on Zoom to cheer everybody up.

“If you can synchronise a dance party, that would be a great idea,” says Fieldman.

Tell them a joke
“Make it your task for the day to find a joke to share not just by text, which isn’t fantastic for jokes, but by telling it to them on the phone or Zoom,” suggests Fieldman.

Send them a letter
“Sending a letter is a real commitment to saying something – it has an intensity that an e-mail or text doesn’t have,” says Fieldman. “Everyone enjoys getting a nice letter from their friends or family.”

Focus on the positives
It can, of course, be tough to see the bright side of the pandemic, particularly for people who have lost loved ones to Covid, and for those who are shielding and lonely.

But even if you’re not feeling exactly sunny about everything, if you’re talking to friends or family who are struggling, make it your goal to be a positive voice, talking about things like the roll-out of the vaccines or when lockdown may end for good.

“We need to invoke optimism,” stresses Fieldman. “All the signs are that the vaccines are a triumph thus far and the roll-out is effective. It’s important to acknowledge the difficulties, and then to identify routes towards more positive attitudes and opportunities. Discuss their plans for a holiday when this is al over – it’s good to have something to look forward to.”

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