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Importance of social support during the coronavirus outbreak

Sosial kontakt er kjempeviktig for vår fysiske og psykiske helse

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Social support – important for health

People are dependent on having social contact with and the support of their immediate family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and the people they meet through various interests and leisure activities. Social contact is actually extremely important for our physical and mental health. Research shows that social contact and support may help to reduce stress, depression, anxiety and isolation, as well as promote our self-esteem, normality, well-being and quality of life – while a lack of social support has the opposite effect.1 The positive effects of good social support can be explained by the fact that such support has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing because it provides us with feelings of predictability, belonging, purpose and security. Another explanation is that social support acts as a buffer against various forms of stress and thus promotes our quality of life and coping mechanisms.

Social isolation and vulnerable groups

We know that social support is particularly important during times of crisis, and Norway, and indeed the whole world, are currently experiencing a major crisis due to the coronavirus. We are receiving constant updates via the various news media about the dramatic impact the virus is having on life, health, social life and the economy. The measures being implemented as a result of this serious situation are experienced as being overwhelming. Our national authorities are asking us to stay at home and to avoid as much social proximity and physical contact as possible in order to prevent the infection from spreading. This situation means that most of us are isolated in different ways, borders are being closed, our freedom of movement is being reduced and increasing numbers of people are being placed in quarantine or self-isolating. We do not know how long this situation will last, but it is thought that it could be a long-term state of affairs.

Consequently we are all more or less exposed to the potential negative consequences of having a lack of social contact and support, with some groups being more affected than others: those groups of people who are particularly vulnerable, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions, are basically subject to limited freedom of movement and smaller networks because they are being further isolated by our current anti-infection measures. Many people live alone and these isolation measures may have a particularly hard impact on them. At the same time it is hard for most people to switch from leading active everyday lives, where their needs for social contact are covered naturally – to a daily reality where we are more or less isolated at home and any social contact suddenly becomes a potential risk. Increasing numbers of people are also being laid off or losing their jobs, resulting in major financial and practical worries about their future. Likewise the everyday lives of families with children and young people who are “locked in” at home can be very difficult, incorporating huge challenges associated with combining childcare, home schooling and working from home, all of which can cause any conflicts to escalate. We are all in a completely new, unfamiliar situation which is having a negative impact on all aspects of our lives, where our customary, safe forms of social support and contact have been eradicated. It is therefore extremely important for our physical and mental health that we find alternative ways of supporting each other and being together.

How to support each other during the coronavirus pandemic

Even though we know that social support is particularly important in the wake of serious life events and crises, many people withdraw because they are unsure about what they should do and say and how they can help. At the same time our experience, and the research we have contacted on the victims of crises, have shown that there are some forms of support which are particularly important and extremely valuable2:

Emotional support

Everyone needs someone to talk to, someone who has time to listen to our worries and who can provide encouragement in the situation we find ourselves in – particularly during unfamiliar, unpredictable times. It is therefore important that we ensure that we have someone who we can share our thoughts and feelings with, and that we are aware about anyone who might need us. The message here is: do not be afraid to ask for or receive contact! Even if we cannot do this by being together physically, there are many different options available to us, e.g. the phone, Skype, Facetime – or going for a walk outside while practicing social distancing. Good emotional support can also consist of attention to small details which shows that someone has not been forgotten, e.g. a text message, a card, a small flower, a packet of buns placed in someone’s letterbox, etc. 

Practical help

Many of us are more or less locked in at home due to the risk of infection, quarantine, age or illness, and we will therefore require different types of practical help. We are delighted to see that the spirit of voluntary cooperation in Norway is considerable and that people are finding creative ways of setting up various help groups. This is important! Even though the risk of infection has imposed limits, practical support, e.g. shopping, collecting the post, putting out/bringing in the rubbish bins, gardening, delivering food, cooking, etc., will be of great help to many people. Practical help may also be provided online, e.g. by chatting and playing games, etc. with children in order to provide relief for their parents. Once again we have seen good examples where both our schools and parents are helping each other by providing creative, practical solutions in this challenging everyday situation. Many people think that it is very difficult to be specific and ask for the help and support that they actually need because they are afraid to overload their networks. In this respect it is important to be open and to be specific about what we need ourselves and what we can contribute.

Encouraging “leisure moments”

During crises it is important to have some respite from things which are difficult and to do things that we enjoy. Sitting alone by ourselves can be challenging when negative news is being continuously broadcast on our screens and access to our usual activities and cultural services has been denied. Helpful measures in this respect could include regular walks in the fresh air while observing social distancing, listening to online concerts together, reading and discussing a good book, or meeting to talk about other things than the coronavirus on Facetime, etc. We need to use our imagination to distract ourselves by taking advantage of the various digital options that are available, which in turn can provide us with extra energy and a feeling of mastery in our everyday lives.

Information:

We are currently being bombarded by news and various types of information. It may be difficult for many people to absorb this information and to separate out what is important for each individual. Providing good, tailored information about various topics could thus provide many people with great support and assistance. At the same time many people are experiencing a new everyday situation as regards how they should relate to the health service, complicated infection rules, layoffs with unfamiliar regulations, etc., and providing information and help to fight their way through the system could be important. 

Financial support:

Many people basically struggle with their finances and the coronavirus crisis could make this worse. Fortunately the authorities have set up a number of different support schemes, and we are hearing about various initiatives being implemented by both employers and others that are very important. Even so, many people will experience major financial challenges in the future. Asking for financial help is often the type of help that most people find it hardest to seek. In this respect it is important that anyone who is in a position to help should be cautious about offering their services. This type of help may also include finding information about current entitlements and entering into agreements with banks about loan repayments, etc.

Guidelines for providing good support

Individual requirements in a crisis will be diverse and individual. Not all support and help is experienced as being good support, and we have therefore drawn up some guidelines about good support during the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Adapt support and provide support and assistance to suit the individual’s own circumstances
  • Do not play down the situation and do not provide advice if it is not sought
  • Be specific about what you can help with, offer your services and repeat your offers of help
  • Respect reactions and different ways of handling the situation
  • Help parents to help their children
  • Strive to be open and communicate clearly. Observe “confidentiality”.
  • Distribute help over networks and provide support over time
  • Trust that your help is important and say that it is good to help

Help and social support in crises is threefold: talk to me, give me practical help and give me some respite. The authorities are constantly emphasising that we are engaged in a massive voluntary effort and that everyone is equally important. We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something. Who could you support and help and thus make a big different to them in this challenging situation?

 

1.         Albrecht TL, Goldsmith DJ, eds. Social support, social networks, and health. Mahwa.: Erlbaum; 2003. Thompson TL, Dorsey  AM, Miller KI, Parrot R, eds. Handbook of health communication.

2.            Hauken, M., Dyregrov, K. (2015): Sosial nettverksstøtte når mor eller far har kreft. Bokkapittel i Haugland, B. og Gjesdal, S.(red) Familier i motbakke. Fagbokforlaget, Bergen