The virtual TOIVO group has opened the borders on the mind: ”I could now imagine facilitating a group even for participants in Rovaniemi”

Dora Puhakka and Iita Turkka start laughing when they see each other on screen. They are experienced peer support group facilitators and are both active people in their respective organizations, but the Teams sessions were not quite familiar to them before isolation period due to coronavirus.

The collaboration seems to be playing seamlessly and with good energy. That cannot always be assumed. Dora was previously quite uncomfortable and against anything virtual.

“I was often invited to all sorts of virtual events before coronavirus and I was always really reluctant. I felt, why should people meet virtually when it is possible to meet in person?”

If there ever was a time to vent, it is now

Dora is a vice-chairperson of Think Africa ry and Iita works in communications in the Helsinki YMCA. Just before isolation period, they had started co-facilitating the new TOIVO group in Helsinki. Iita began to persuade Dora to continue the group virtually. After all, more than ten participants were eager to be part of it. The English-speaking group only had a chance to meet once, and the atmosphere was so nice that they both agreed that it would be such a pity to leave it at that. Eventually, Dora agreed to give it a try - at least once. “I felt that if there ever was a time to vent, that time is now. It’s wonderful that Iita boldly suggested this” Dora says. 

Free discussion and breathing techniques

The facilitators held their first open discussion with the group on the impact of coronavirus, and the isolation period on the participants. Participants talked about emotions, the difficult moments during the isolation and shared tips on how to cope with the current situation. 

“The meeting had positive effects, a lot of participants found it useful and nice,” Iita recalls.

The second meeting addressed the cultural differences and clashes. In the third meeting, the group made progress and was already able to focus more on Toivo Group’s main themes. “We talked about sleep and the daily routine. There was an interesting discussion about everyone’s routine during the isolation period, what is used to be and what it ideally would be for each person”, Dora shares.

It is harder to experience genuine closeness virtually

The virtual group has its challenges. Last minute changes and other improvisations are harder to make. All communication between instructors is directly visible to participants. It’s also harder to experience true closeness when talking about difficult things online.

“If someone were to cry, it feels like there would be very few tools to deal with the situation through the screen,” the facilitators mentioned.

Through virtual groups, they also realized that not everyone has a safe space at home to talk. There is always one of the family members that may be listening in the background. The situation is even more difficult if family relationships are tense or complicated.

“Sometimes things that a participant would like to talk about may concern family members,” Dora says.

Iita also feels more burdened by holding a virtual group because contact through the screen does not feel natural.

“In the physical meeting, people don’t normally look into each other’s eyes all the time, but in a virtual meeting, I’m constantly looking for eye contact and any other body language. It’s exhausting at times. ”

Accessibility rocks

Now the facilitator pair sees a lot of positive aspects in the virtual group as well.

“Accessibility really is the best part of a virtual group. Not everyone is able to leave their homes for mental or physical reasons or someone may not have the money to buy a ticket to travel. With the virtual group, some obstacles are eliminated” Iita expresses.

According to the facilitators, the virtual group is also suitable for those who do not want to share so much about themselves. The camera can always be turned off.

“In a virtual group, it is easier to join as a passive participant because withdrawal in the physical space is much more emphasized,” Dora says.

The support from the co-facilitator is important

Both Iita and Dora feel that the support of the other facilitator in hosting the peer support group is really important. When one facilitator has less motivation, the other can lift the mood.

“When I could not think of anything to say, the other facilitator has always taken over or when I went on in a completely different direction from the subject, it was relieving to see Dora’s approving smile in her own box. The exchanges between us have gone really smoothly, ”Iita says.

“It’s really important to be able to look at each other with confidence. The mutual feeling that I trust you, you trust me,”Dora says.

More courage as a result of the experience

According to Dora, there will be a lower threshold in the future to offer the virtual participation opportunity if someone is unable to attend physically due to illness or other reasons, for example. The mind has also opened up towards outside of Helsinki.

“This experience has increased the courage to step out of my comfort zone. It feels like I could now imagine facilitating a group even for participants in Rovaniemi. Without an state of emergency (and Iita), I would have never considered even trying this, ”Dora laughs.

“I would also be willing to continue to do this once I get used to this,” Iita says.

Still, the instructors are already hopefully looking forward to planning and meeting the group face to face.

“I look forward to seeing the physical eyes and real humans in flesh and blood. I dream of rinsing tangerines in Iita’s kitchen while she is writing our plan for the session on a flip board,”Dora sums up.

"Me too! I also expect to be able to feel a person’s presence in a room without having to peep through the cubicles around the screen to find their face ”Iita says.

A step towards physical contact was taken in the group soon after the interview, as the next meeting was in nature, in Seurasaari, Helsinki.

TEXT: Viivi Virtanen

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