Life in Lockdown
With the arrival of COVID-19, spring and summer presented significant new challenges for all of us here at Bazooka Arts.
After lockdown began in March, things changed rapidly. The crisis required a swift and urgent response from us. People are referred to these therapeutic arts programmes for a combination of reasons, including the impact of severe and enduring mental ill health and isolation. We needed to find a way to continue providing support to the 90 children and adults in our programmes.
We use a therapeutic arts approach to support children and adults to build the skills and resilience required to develop and maintain positive mental health and wellbeing. Until March, this work largely took place in person. We were challenged with making major adaptations to our service in the face of uncertainty. We responded to the needs of our participants in real time. Initially, this involved closing our groups and looking at how to re-establish them remotely.
As therapeutic practitioners, always aim to work responsively, providing clients with the right support at the right time. We drew on this skill adapting our service and esponding urgently to need on a whole new level. We’ve always been agile, working as a small team. We’re used to adapting everything we provide to the needs of different participants. We knew we had to move quickly to protect our clients from worsening mental ill health and to help them employ coping strategies during this crisis.
Essentially, we were providing a crisis mental health support service.
Our COVID-19 Response
The World Health Organisation identified a majority of our client groups as being at increased risk of the impact of COVID-19 – this includes people who live with life-limiting conditions, older-age ill-health, and underlying health conditions. The situation deepened levels of isolation for many of the vulnerable people who we work with.
Our immediate priority was to establish and sustain contact with all participants, to assess the situation people were in with regards to resources, including food and finances, and to provide immediate therapeutic support and coping strategies. Where necessary, we actively signposted people to local contingency plans for food banks, emergency financial support services, mental health and social work services where required.
One of the major problems was that some other support services were restricted – both due to the practical difficulties of lockdown and the increased pressure on health and council services caused by the escalating pandemic.
All initial contact was made by text and phone. Phone contact is how we stay in touch with people throughout their involvement with our programmes and we often make supportive and encouraging calls to help people with their face to face group engagement.
This turned out to be invaluable to acting quickly. We had everyone’s numbers, they were used to us contacting them and we have good, trusting relationships. All of this was the basis on which we were able to build our remote working.
For people who had access to affordable internet and digital devices we were able to restart groups online through Zoom and maintain an ongoing creative programme through an app called Cluster.
In order for people to take part, we needed to get materials out to each household. We sent therapeutic art packs with art materials for people to use at home as well as information, contact numbers and tools for staying well.
We realised that many of our primary contacts were supporting other family members at home including children and adults with additional support needs. This led us to develop whole family therapeutic arts programmes.
Creating online replacement group-based therapeutic programmes provided a safe, regulated platform for participants with mental ill-health to connect with facilitators, take part in activities and connect with other participants, reducing isolation.
For those with access, Zoom, along with Cluster, which we’ll mention in a moment, were the closest thing we could get to feeling like we were in the room together. Being able to talk in real time as a group and see each other’s faces was a vital mode of communication. It gave us the opportunity to talk about the experience of living in such a changed world and for people not to feel so alone as they shared their stories. We were also able continue therapeutic art, drama and volunteer programmes via Zoom.
One of our participants suggested Cluster for sharing artwork and discussion. This enabled anonymity and privacy in a closed forum. We have now set up 7 Cluster groups where we deliver therapeutic programmes and our participants can connect to us and each other to receive support and share their creative work – anything from photographs, painted shoes, wooden rings to monologues! These groups are a great way to create a shared safe space and source of support.
We also clustered in another way, by creating mini-groups based on who had access to which services. Some chatted on WhatsApp, others on Facebook Messenger. This reduced the barrier to entry for many of our participants and allowed them to stay connected on platforms that they are already comfortable using.
Gaining internet access
We worked hard to find access to computers for some participants who didn’t have access to one already. We were able to secure devices with inbuilt data through a Scottish Government initiative. Those participants received a Chromebook or iPad which includes prepaid internet access for a minimum of 1 year to help them stay connected.
One participant who received a device said, “it’s absolutely fantastic. It has been a lifeline.” They mentioned they have been watching online tutorials and developing their skills. They were also able to follow the football and join in on Bazooka Zoom chats for the first time.
It has been a lifeline.– A Bazooka Arts participant who received a device with prepaid internet access
Our Creative Programme
The creative wellbeing and mental health resource kits we distributed to our participants early in lockdown enabled people to take part in our programmes. From home, our participants created art work using a whole range of media, including photography, painting, storytelling, collage, creative writing, puppetry, therapeutic movement, and drama.
We structured the programmes thematically. We decided to work with nature for a number of reasons: the first being that in early lockdown, people’s one walk a day outside was a shared experience that led many people to closely observe the weather and nature in their local area. Working with the seasons also gave a consistent way of marking the passage of time when so many other daily markers and life events were cancelled or in flux.
We will be sharing more detail about our remotely delivered summer programme in our next blog post.
Taking it forward
Adapting our service in response to the pandemic was extremely challenging but in being forced to do so we have made some amazing discoveries.
We wouldn’t have developed a remote platform without the circumstances created by COVID-19 but now that we have we can see how much it enhances our original way of working.
Enhancing our level of support
We hope that this time of learning will help us to support people who are less able to take part in person. This will help us to better include people who are not yet at a point of readiness to participate in a face to face project – for example, people who experience agoraphobia or social anxiety, as well as people who have limited mobility.
Staying connected throughout the week
The Cluster app will provide a way of connecting participants to a weekly group throughout the week, as will home kits – rather than 2 hours a week of engagement, people can be connected to a creative community or project all week.
When delivering our usual in-person programmes and groups before COVID, we used to meet up once a week. On parting, we’d give our participants a task or something to look out for. You will have seen some examples of these in our blog posts. Something like noticing the patterns Autumn leaves, or taking inspiration from nature.
Now, we want our participants to be able to leave the session but stay connected. We think Cluster will be a great way for people to share their inspiration as it strikes, show us their work in progress, and get feedback as they work. It’ll also provide some valuable inspiration. This, in turn, will keep their challenge front of mind. We are excited to see what this can bring.
Using Zoom and Cluster will help us to maintain connection and inclusion across a range of circumstances including everything from bad weather, holidays to ill health. We feel more equipped to pivot and change as required, even in ways that weren’t clear to us before.
In addition to filling the gap during absences, we can now provide extra support for those who need it. Things like providing a home pack for a participant to try out our activity for the week from their own home.
Enhanced one-to-one therapeutic support
We had begun to offer one to one support on our Lottery programme but remote service meant regular check ins with everyone, which is something we couldn’t do in a room full of participants before. Through this, we developed a deeper understanding of individual needs. We were also able to provide an enhanced level of therapeutic one-on-one support. This has helped to embed it in our service and to expand it.
Filling in any gaps in contact
This experience has made us more aware of each of our participants’ digital resources and abilities, which will make us better able to adapt to their challenges and provide an equal level of support to everyone in our groups, both now and in the future.