Finding Community During Isolating Times by Victor See

Recently, a group of academics from around the world, none of whom I had ever met in person, sang happy birthday to me by video chat. The rendition was terrible. Video lag meant that they were out of time with each other and, as is the way with these things, more than one person was out of tune. But you know what? It absolutely made my day!

The need for connection

Human beings are social creatures. In our hunter-gatherer days, having a community meant that we were safer from wild animals or rival tribes and could pool resources and effort. Although animal attacks are not exactly a concern for us in modern times, those instincts to seek connection and build community remain strong. Studies have shown that loneliness and lack of meaningful connection is not only harmful to your mental health but your physical health as well. On the other hand, the benefits of being part of a community are many: a support network, access to diverse experiences and an increased sense of purpose to name a few. But what to do when a global pandemic threatens to cut you off from your communities?

For most of us, the pandemic has changed the way that we live our lives on a fundamental level. We are navigating new challenges like working from home, educating children who cannot go to school or being confined to a small space for an extended period of time. Things that were trivial before lockdown, like grocery shopping or going for a walk, can now seem hard and daunting. As a result, many of us can feel our stress and anxiety levels climbing.

Faced with such uncertainty, it would be natural to seek help and support from the communities we are part of. However, physical distancing rules prevent us from getting this support in person. No longer can we catch up with family over a cup of tea or go to a friend’s house for a cathartic chat. Instead, Zoom, Skype and Facetime are the forms of communication we must now use. For many, these tools are new and unfamiliar and don’t “scratch the itch” in the same way that face to face communication would. Even for the technologically savvy, online video conversations can still lack a certain something.

But not all change is bad…

For me, the lockdown started towards the end of March. After a week, I could already tell that my mental health was taking a slight down turn. Having coped with an anxiety disorder for a number of years, I knew that it would only get worse unless I took proactive steps to look after myself. Among other things, I restarted my meditation routine and my gratefulness diary.

Living alone as I do, the lack of social interaction during lockdown was also something that I was concerned with. Of course, I was video calling my friends but nevertheless, social isolation was still on my mind. One day, while mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, I came across something that piqued my interest:

After a bit of research, I learned that the COVID Cafés are a social hour on Zoom for academics from all over the world. I’m not exactly sure what I expected going into my first café but what I got was a welcoming, supportive and extremely heart-warming community.

Finding an international community

COVID Cafés are run by Dragonfly Mental Health which is a non-profit that focuses on promoting positive mental health within academia through systemic change.  In the wake of university campuses shutting down around the world, the consortium saw the need for a space for academics struggling with the lock down – somewhere academics could meet and support each other.

The cafés started as an experiment. It wasn’t clear that anyone would turn up or that, if they did, whether they would find it useful. At first, they were slightly awkward. Most of us were strangers to each other and the conversation was a little tentative. Yet, despite that, there was an unmistakable seed of an incredibly positive and supportive community.

Three months on and the cafés are going strong with a core of regulars as well as a steady stream of newcomers. It has provided us with a means to meet like-minded people from across the world and a safe space to talk about anything on our minds. The conversations run the gamut from the casual (how was your day?) to the serious (how can we improve academic mental health?) all the way to the absurd (could you make a toilet paper substitute from eggs?!). Outside of the regular Zoom sessions, we also have a Slack space where we can continue these conversations. And for many of us, myself included, the cafés have provided the impetus to get involved with the efforts of Dragonfly Mental Health to improve mental health in academia; a subject important to many of us.

Physically distant but socially close

All around the world, we are being asked to follow social distancing rules to help prevent the spread of the pandemic. While I agree with the spirit of these measures, I think the term “social distancing” gives the wrong message. It can be all too easy to fall into a downward spiral due to the lockdown. Feelings of isolation or loneliness can impact our self-esteem making us less likely to connect with others, leading to further isolation. Now more than ever, we should be trying to form meaningful connections rather than distancing ourselves socially.

I appreciate that, for many, this may be hard or daunting. Finding or re-establishing connections requires effort and time and a lot of us are short on these commodities right now. Even a little connection can go a long way though so I would encourage everyone to seek it out wherever and however they can. It might be calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while or as simple as having a quick chat to a neighbour over the fence.

Or perhaps, this post has encouraged you to join us at COVID Café or Dragonfly Mental Health. If you’re having a bad day, we will lend a sympathetic ear. If you have good news, we will celebrate and cheer. There are running jokes, talent shows and a seemingly never ending stream of pet pictures! And if it’s your birthday? Then we’ll sing you a wonderfully terrible rendition of happy birthday.

Post-pandemic community building

It may feel premature to think about life after the pandemic. However, I would like to close by doing exactly that. I believe that the lessons we are learning now can help us bring about long-lasting change in academia.

Many might consider the online replacements of traditional academic activities like seminars or conferences to be inferior to the pre-lockdown in-person versions. In many ways, I would agree. However, we should also recognise that they have positives when considering whether an event could be online in a post-pandemic world. For example, they are more inclusive since they allow those who may not be able to travel, e.g. due to disability or childcare responsibilities, to attend. They also reduce our collective carbon footprint by minimising physical travel. Of course, you may worry that remote events would lack the networking opportunities of in-person events. However, COVID Café, and the other remote online communities that have sprung up, show that meaningful connection and collaboration between geographically distant participants is more than possible. It is my hope that the spirit of building communities remotely will continue even after the pandemic has passed. After all, every academic deserves to feel like they belong in the academic community regardless of personal situation or circumstance.

Victor See

Victor is an astronomer studying the stars at the University of Exeter, UK. He is also a member of Dragonfly Mental Health and works towards de-stigmatising mental health issues within academia. In his spare time, he enjoys reading fantasy fiction, playing guitar and hiking.