Facilitating peer support online enables you to reach many more women. The Women Side by Side programme resourced face-to-face peer support for 3,139 women in the 12-month period, while one women-only peer support project funded by the programme offered online peer support to 2,663 women! This demonstrates that online support was valued by women before the COVID-19 pandemic and before the first UK lockdown began in March 2020.
This toolkit was co-designed entirely online, bringing together women throughout England and Wales. As one participant said: “We ended up creating our own peer support group online and it felt like a really organic way of coming together every week.”
Different types of online support
There are many types of online support, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages. While one might work for a certain group of women, another may not suit at all. Choose the format that best suits the age, literacy level, digital access, and technical ability of your members and don’t be afraid to experiment. Options include:
Free, widely used and relatively easy to access, these platforms have become commonplace as people increasingly work from home. They are also used by therapists, mental health teams and GPs. While many women will feel comfortable with video calling, some may lack the IT skills and others may find it overwhelming. Some women are self-conscious about appearing on video or do not have a safe space at home where they will not be overheard. It can be a good idea to discuss these issues with women individually over the telephone before they join the call, and/or offer them the option of having the webcam switched off.
It is also important to note how this type of peer support will support women with disabilities, such as those who have a sight impairment, or are deaf or hard of hearing.
WhatsApp and other text-based applications provide a slightly lower tech solution for virtual peer support. Participants can share photos and use voice notes or video if they wish but they can also choose to communicate through text alone.
It's easy to take part without attracting the attention of anyone else in the home. This method is more continuously accessible than a video call: women can text or email when they have put the kids to bed or if they have five minutes on the bus to work. They do not have to wait for a weekly scheduled Zoom call.
However, some people find a constant stream of notifications overwhelming and those with learning differences or literacy issues may feel excluded. It also important to safeguard the wellbeing of group facilitators as they cannot be expected to be permanently available, and there needs to be a plan for if, for example, someone posts to the group in crisis at midnight.
Forums offer the benefit of anonymity as members can post under a username and don't have to show their face at all. This can have implications for safeguarding and your team would need to agree a plan if someone posted about an unsafe situation. Most forums offer the option to share photos or videos.
They share many of the advantages of WhatsApp, text, or email but also have the added benefit of being able to offer multiple ‘chat rooms’. For example, you might have separate areas to discuss different mental health concerns as well as another room where women can discuss work or children or even share jokes or memes.
Members can start their own threads to discuss issues that are relevant to them and this can give a sense of agency and ownership.
On the other hand, there is the expectation that users will be comfortable with the written word and this might discourage women who have a lower level of literacy or for whom English is not their native language. Forums need more time-intensive set-up and upkeep than a Zoom group, for example, as most need ongoing moderation. Participants may also need to remember to ‘check’ the forum regularly as it would not be integrated with their other digital communications in the way that email or an app would be.
Many peer support groups also access online social media particularly closed Facebook groups or weekly Twitter chats which are effective in bringing people together in the virtual world. Finding the right platform that everyone in the group has access to and can use can be a challenge.
Safety and trust online
When facilitating online peer support, there are several factors to consider in terms of building trust and establishing safety that may not be an issue when providing face-to- face peer support. For example, it is harder to interpret body language, tone of voice, and facial expression via video. If there is no camera, then people may rely on text or emojis to convey meaning and these can also be misinterpreted. If you are using a text- based platform, all non-verbal elements of communication are completely absent. Women may also worry about how confidentiality and data protection can be assured online and how it might be vulnerable to hacking or infiltration from perpetrators of domestic or sexual violence and abuse.
Here are a few simple steps that will help to establish an atmosphere of trust and safety:
If possible, provide an induction session for each new member. Explain what she can expect and cover technicalities such as who can access the online session, how secure the chosen platform is, and how the software works. This could take place online, over the phone, or face-to-face. This process should also help to identify any accessibility issues.
Establish a process for welcoming new members, whether that is encouraging them to post in a ‘Getting to Know You’ section of the forum or setting aside part of the video call to play an icebreaker game or for them to briefly introduce themselves if they wish.
Talk to them about where they will access the group – to protect themselves and other people’s material. For example, if they want to be outside, perhaps they should then wear headphones so that other participants can’t be overheard. Do they have a private space where they can be part of the group?
Set up a group confidentiality agreement at the start of each session where each member agrees that what is said in the group remains in the group unless there is a concern that a person may hurt themselves or someone else, or unless expressed permission is given to share the information. This agreement can be done verbally on a video call or via a tick box screen on a forum.
Create a group contract that gives an idea of how people are expected to behave in your online community and what will happen if these rules are not followed. It is best if your members come up with the rules themselves. Remember to cover issues such as whether swearing is acceptable, what constitutes bullying, what will happen in the event of racist, sexist or homophobic language being used.
Also consider how members will respect one another in a video call. For example, will everyone talk at once or will there be an etiquette so that everyone can be heard? Is it okay to take unannounced breaks? How much personal information should they share online?
Investigate security measures such as passwords and e-invites. Would your group members feel safer if they knew only people with a certain passcode could access their video call? Does it give them a greater sense of trust and belonging if each member is invited individually by name?
Do some research into usernames. For example, some women may feel safer joining a group they are able to post or video chat under a name that is not their own. These names can still be individual and give a sense of who the person is without giving away their identity. For example, “EnglandFan66” gives you a good idea of the person’s rough age and interests without giving away too much personal information.
When using video calls, discuss with your group whether they feel the need to be constantly on camera. For some groups, having people who listen but do not appear on video is off-putting. Others have a policy that it is okay to only begin speaking or appearing on camera when a person feels comfortable to do so. Some women prefer that everyone has their camera on when they are sharing lived experience, while others feel safer when they can speak but not be seen.
Consider what you might do if someone becomes upset or discussion becomes a bit heated. One option is to provide breakout rooms where women can speak one-on- one with a facilitator or peer supporter before re-joining the group.
Bear in mind that neurodiverse group members might have different perceptions of video or audio communication and need additional support. For example, one group that worked with women with a diagnosis of schizophrenia found that video calling was not the right format for their members, many of whom experienced visual or auditory distortions.
Be creative. For example, one group worked with teenagers diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, and some members of the group refused to take part in a Zoom call because they found eye contact difficult. They came up with the excellent solution of using Snapchat filters. Each person could choose to attend the group as themselves or as a cartoon dog, teddy bear, or other character. As well as being a great icebreaker, this gave the members a sense of emotional safety.
Be mindful of digital poverty and accessibility issues. Some women will have no access computers, tablets, or smartphones. They may not be able to overcome IT issues without support. They may have sensory impairments that make video calling daunting. They may not wish to use an online forum because it is not offered in their native language. They may be self-conscious about their level of literacy. These are just a few of the barriers that women can face. Think carefully about the needs of the women that your group exists to benefit and consult them in advance.
Top tips for online facilitators
Be reliable and do what you say you will when you say you will. If any difficulties arise, let your group members know in advance wherever possible. If the facilitator sticks to the dates and times of group, this establishes trust. The attendance of group members is also less likely to fluctuate.
Send any e-invites well in advance, and make sure everyone has access to the right links and online resources. Decide well ahead of time what you will do if your usual meeting falls during Christmas or school holidays.
Give a back up contact number so that people can get in touch with the facilitators in the event of tech/data/internet failure.
Run your peer support on a regular basis at a set time and for an agreed duration to encourage people to attend.
If you’re hosting online sessions, structure them by having an agenda (loose or formal depending on the needs of the group). Have a clear beginning, middle and end to the session.
These might include self-care, relaxation, establishing personal boundaries, self- advocacy, medication, nutrition or healthy relationships.
Consider having a list of questions or topics that you can introduce in case the conversation falters.
Ensure you know how to use the technology and think through how you will help members with any technical difficulties. It’s often useful to have a separate person on hand to help with this who is not also trying to facilitate the session.
It is exhausting to facilitate meetings on Skype or Zoom so ensure that you take screen breaks and do not schedule too many groups in a day.
Ensure that your group members know that, although the internet operates around the clock, you do not. Be clear about when you can answer emails, texts, or offer online support.
You may hear distressing things or have to mediate in emotionally charged situations so make sure that you have someone you can talk to about this.