Stories from the Community: Tackling mental health and isolation together

22 May 2020


With the impact of coronavirus around the UK and much of the world, we continue to face challenging times. We’re supporting our fantastic network partners who are proving to be a vital lifeline for socially and digitally excluded people. These organisations are using a range of techniques to provide support, and are playing a crucial role in helping people access the devices, digital tools and resources they need.

The Lloyds Digital Consumer Index 2020 shows that 9 million UK adults are still struggling to use the internet and are unable to perform tasks such as turning on a device, connecting to Wi-Fi or opening an app. Our network of centres are working tirelessly and creatively on the frontline in the fight to reduce this gap.

One of these centres is Cross Gates and District Good Neighbours’ Scheme CIO, a local charity in Leeds working with older people to reduce isolation and support independence.

Two months since the centre was forced to close its physical doors to all of its 1,200 members, Digital Inclusion worker Samantha Haggart updates us on how they’ve been getting on.

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It was with great sadness that in March, our doors had to close temporarily to our members, all of whom are over 60 and at risk of poor mental health and social isolation.

One of our main funders, BT’s Skills for Tomorrow programme, recently released new research revealing that over 70s are suffering much more from a combination of physical and digital isolation during the Coronavirus lockdown than many people realise.

The poll of 1,000 people with a close relative over 70 found that less than a quarter believe their loved one would be willing to try a video call with a GP, with the majority willing to risk a longer wait for an appointment in person.

This is shocking. We’re determined to tackle this issue, and with support from BT and others - including The Department for Education, which has released a fantastic digital resource called The Skills Toolkit - we’ve managed to get through this difficult time and not only survive, but create new opportunities.

Our usual face-to-face group sessions were often the only places that members could enjoy conversations with others, so we knew the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their mental health and wellbeing would be huge. We’ve worked really hard to isolate the risk factors and create outlets for connection.

Improving mental health

Over the last 8 weeks we have established a community of our members online. Every morning I sign into Zoom and wait for the windows to open up to see who is joining us today. These virtual sessions have now become a part of their daily routines and in many cases have stopped people from entering a crisis with their mental health.

It’s the routine, the familiarity, the comfort, the security, and above all the kindness they’re benefitting from. They will play a game, laugh and have fun but above all keep in touch with familiar faces on the call, which is missing from a big part of their day at the moment. Many of them tell us it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, a time when depression is the strongest and negative thoughts can be at their worst.

The mental wellbeing of our members is so important. Our centre is a lifeline to so many, especially those without a family network, and with our centre closed at this time, our digital sessions are even more vital now than ever before. Most of our members are in the shielded cohort of people in lockdown and so isolation is a huge risk factor. The difference between a voice call and a video call is so significant especially when it feels a very long time since we’ve all seen each other - and of course it also develops members’ digital skills.

New friendships have formed between people who have never met outside our virtual meetings. We have all formed a real bond as we all go through lockdown together, whilst being aware that everyone’s journey in lockdown is different. The support members are offering each other has been so endearing.

I am constantly inspired by the people I speak to on the calls. Zoom was an entirely new platform for all of our members but our support as digital champions has given our members the confidence to develop their digital skills.

Success stories

Ernest, our oldest member, is 94. He signed up to the virtual sessions after we lent him an iPad through our Tablet Lending scheme. Ernest received training via telephone and has found that being able to chat to his friends on the call has been a lifesaver. The overall benefits for Ernest have been transformational. The sessions have also helped his family and wider network as they know he has other people to chat to during the day. He has also started virtual IT lessons with us on Thursdays using Learn My Way.

Brian, 78, is our resident poet and singer and shares with us his original poems each week which always brings joy to the other members. Brian lost his wife at Christmas so lockdown came at a really difficult time for him. Brian has been a member of our virtual group since we started. He joins us 5 mornings a week and says they have helped keep him going. He enjoys coming online and chatting with us and has even joined our IT class on a Friday where he has been learning new skills. He wrote a poem for our group:

Virtually Together

We’re all stuck in lockdown
And can’t meet up with friends
This social isolation
Just drives me round the bend.

So I look to social media
Although it’s not the same
As hugging friends and family
At least I’m in the game.

With Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp
And other applications
I can meet all sorts of people
A virtual League of Nations.

We’ve quizzes, coffee mornings
And hints of where to find
Things of local interest
To stimulate the mind.

So thank you social media
For waking up my brain
With virtual get togethers
We keep each other sane.

Learning new skills gives members a sense of purpose and has really boosted their mental wellbeing, giving them something to focus on and practice, but being able to stay together virtually through Zoom calls has been the real game changer. We couldn’t be prouder of our members and our staff for the way they’ve coped and for all the hope they’ve spread during this difficult time.

One valuable mental health resource we signpost towards is the Mindwell Coronavirus Mental Health Hub, as well as mental health resources on our 100% Digital Leeds website.

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Find out more about Good Things Foundation’s work to support digitally and socially excluded people during the coronavirus outbreak here, and if you’re part of our network and would like to share how you’re supporting your community, please get in touch at hello@goodthingsfoundation.org.

The work of Cross Gates and District Good Neighbours’ Scheme CIO is possible thanks to the support of our funders: BT’s Skills for Tomorrow programme and the NHS.