On Saturday, 29 August 2020, Sunway Peer Counselling Volunteers held a virtual forum titled “Friendship in the Time of Pandemic” through their Facebook Live. The forum was joined by panellists Prof. Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Rebecca Kavitha Segran, Wong Hur Beng, and Akshina Devi Nawoor and was moderated by Sharenee Philomena Paramasivam.
First, Sharenee opened the forum with an introduction on friendship and its significance throughout our life, from as early as when a child makes their first individual choice to select someone outside of their family to become friends with. However, new challenges have undoubtedly been presented to friendships during the time of the pandemic.
Quarantine and MCOs not only have physical effects on the sense of community and society, but they also lead to psychological effects on individuals. Sharenee shared that, according to a study, 69% of teachers said this was the most stressful time of their professional careers because of the distance. As an educator herself, Sharenee sees first-hand in her classrooms the impact that the pandemic is having on students; social distancing, for one, is slowing the process of making connections compared to pre-pandemic.
A UK study showed that 10% of people choose to break lockdown rules just to meet other people because they are lonely. Meanwhile, 75% of adults over the age of 55 claim to struggle mentally due to the lack of connections. It is clear that the emotional burdens of the pandemic see no limits when it comes to age. Though COVID-19 has physically distanced people, it is the connections through friendships that help individuals overcome such unpredictable, scary, and trying times.
Friendship experience during pandemic
From Singapore, Hur Beng shared that there has not been many opportunities to make new friends unless they were work-related; thus, he has mostly been maintaining current relationships through digital platforms. As a student, Akshina, too, had to adapt to connecting with and supporting her friends through online video calls. For many, technical issues such as glitches and freezing due to poor bandwidth can disrupt the quality of interactions and thus, as Sharenee put, “connection with friends becomes tied to connection with the Internet”.
Impact of pandemic on friendship
Prof. Alvin believes that social media users are becoming accustomed to receiving delayed reactions; that is, when someone posts something, it is normal to still receive likes/comments a few days later. Despite this, he is still not used to teaching through a screen and not seeing the faces he’s talking to nor their reactions in real-time. The face-to-face connection is the most human. Nonetheless, his students have been good at responding despite the circumstances and he has learnt to have fun with it. As for making new connections, he said that one needs to develop the skills to make appropriate connections and introduce oneself to new people through social media platforms without intruding or coming off the wrong way. The new concept of making friends online can be stressful. Even within Sunway University, new students face the daunting task of having to approach and work in groups with fellow students they’ve never seen before.
From the perspective of a child protector, Rebecca spoke about concerns of abuse. She and her team worked hard to get a hotline out to engage in and manage remote cases. It became harder to pick up on cases of abuse during the pandemic, thus requiring them to build a national network for case management and to partner with other NGOs, forming friendships they never had to do in the past. A positive takeaway from this situation is the establishing of connections that would otherwise have not been established, in order to protect the vulnerable. Most cases of abuse were picked up post-pandemic and, since, they have been engaging with parents to encourage positive parenting and scale down punishments. Besides, cases of depression in students also saw a rise post-pandemic, addressed through counselling.
Hur Beng mentioned the convenience that physical interaction lacks which is the wide range of channels (applications) in the digital age. Among the consequences that one should be wary of is the damage of exclusive conversations as a result of Internet connection issues among friends, and child predators. Rebecca agreed that Internet safety is a major concern for the welfare team. Children don’t readily come out but her team was good at getting them to engage and staying in contact with parents so they would be more vulnerable and open. Dignity for Children Foundation deployed 500 sim cards to students to remain engaged with them and provide educational material and advice. With this came the concern about their usage of phones 24/7, thus, workshops were also carried out on sexual awareness, personal safety, and media literacy.
In order to stay connected, teachers had to immediately switch to communicating in a different way. Prof. Alvin explained that from the start, teachers had to send out emails, check in on their mentees, and he would have weekly town hall meetings. Because the situation is very fluid, frequent communication is essential. He noted that noise at home, such as other family members working or being on a call at the same time, can give rise to mental health problems when compounded with an individual’s existing personal struggles.
Sharenee also had to learn how to react quickly, to navigate the digital platforms, and to engage. She relayed that she had a student who was doing well in their studies pre-pandemic, but during the pandemic, kept missing online classes due to an emotionally abusive home environment. Going to campus had been an escape from that; hence, being confined to the house only exacerbated the situation. It was from this incident that Sharenee realised there needs to be more attention on the topic of individual mental health or prioritising of it alongside the technical aspects of staying connected throughout the pandemic, as educators are occupied with putting lesson plans together. Akshina expressed that during her final semester, she did not have many classes and mostly had to stay home. Without being able to go to the library to study with friends, motivating herself became the biggest challenge. In the comfort of one’s home, it is easy to become lazy, so she stayed on track by having a timetable and kept active by exercising.
On the contrary, motivation was not lacking for Hur Beng because, as an auditor, he had to ensure he met deadlines and was kept on his feet by client calls. The sense of achievement drove him so he would be able to have time for himself.
Physical vs technology
All panelists concurred that technology cannot replace physical contact. Rebecca said this is because of human nuances such as the vibes, energy, and laughters exchanged through physical communication. Akshina found that staying at home made her aware of how much physical contact is taken for granted. Hur Beng described online platforms as mere tools for personal touch cannot get through technology. Facial expressions and tone of voice, for example, are not as genuine through text. Likewise, video calls can elevate but not replace the physical experience.
Challenges in connecting with friends
Prof. Alvin spoke of the initial awkwardness that comes with meeting friends face-to-face, as what he was used to before, like shaking hands and hugging, is difficult to do now. Instead, greetings turn into “kungfu” as people are unsure of how to approach the other person. Though he enjoys relaxing at home, he does wish to meet with friends but gets apprehensive about whether he really needs to, given the nationwide need to minimise movement and contact. There is an ongoing sense of anxiety, tension, or paranoia.
Rebecca said that this is a good time to be still and deal with one’s internal conflicts, as working on bettering oneself would translate to one’s friendships as well.
Expectations to connect during friendship
There are certain expectations that come out of the MCO, such as the expectation to make connections although there are many who enjoy their own space and time at home. Akshina acknowledged that some people may feel pressured to make connections, especially with newer friendships, for they may worry that they’ll drift apart if they don’t communicate often. With older friendships, however, there tends to be a mutual understanding that they don’t have to feel guilty for not contacting each other every day.
Student Struggles – Social Anxiety and Low Self-esteem
According to Prof. Alvin, it is actually hard to pinpoint the reason for all of these struggles as it involves complex upbringings and complicated situations. He even admits himself for being shy at times and the struggle is never easy to handle. Furthermore, there are numerous types of social anxiety. In terms of self-esteem, he believes that it is not the main issue but self efficacy that should be considered. This is because for self-esteem, once the goal is achieved, that’s it. However, life does not work this way. In contrast, self efficacy gives one the chance to improve themselves and practise. With this mindset, someone who might be suffering from social anxiety would see themselves as a person who is a “work in progress”.
To get the panelists’ further input on this matter, the moderator raised the question on how to handle these overwhelming issues. Rebecca generously shared with the panelists her experience in dealing with social anxiety where she had to constantly put herself out there into the world to face her anxiety. The main takeaway for her from her experiences was that it is important to have the courage to be disliked. Sharenee agreed with her completely and added that in today’s society, there is a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not, nothing in between.
With social anxiety and self efficacy in mind, the moderator shifted the forum to the transitioning period of a student from studying to working. Hur Beng pointed out that the main goal of a student is to achieve the best grades but that’s not the end of the story. Transitioning to the working life is never easy as the expectations faced in the real world may be harsh since studying is not all that matters. Hur Beng explained that entering the working life would be synonymous to having a “reality check”. The example he gave was that he couldn’t meet his boss’ expectations and started questioning and doubting himself, especially his capabilities. From there, he learned that it is crucial to have the drive and mental resilience to keep pushing on regardless of the doubts faced. One way of easing the burden would be admitting one’s flaws while acknowledging one’s strengths. Once the flaws have been recognized, the next step was to seek help from friends and not take on this heavy burden alone. This process may be difficult, but it is not impossible. It just requires hard work and support from friends or peers to help overcome the mental hurdles.
At this moment, Sharenee asked about how Hur Beng and Rebecca chose to deal with hard truths since Hur Beng chose to self reflect and improve while Rebecca chose to put herself out there and go for counselling. Rebecca answered first by stating that one should love themselves enough so that they are ready to face hard truths. Moreover, don’t be afraid of seeking help especially when it comes to counselling but build sufficient self love for the motivation to go for it.
Hur Beng later added on that goals should be made while acknowledging shortcomes. Only then one can make the first step in improving. Determination alone is not enough, which is why seeking others for help is needed. The experience Hur Beng shared would be considered as having a growth mindset. For further information about this mindset, Sharenee suggested the book “Mindset the New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dwek.
Akshina later shared her struggles in trying to mingle with other people especially when she first came to Malaysia as an international student. She was also anxious about making friends and had a dilemma in her behavior to prevent loneliness or awkwardness.
Ways to Handle Social Anxiety/Friendships that cause Social Anxiety
Seek help. Prof. Alvin reemphasized this point as it is a powerful skill as well as acknowledging one’s own vulnerability. It’s much stronger to be vulnerable than trying to be strong. However, this is not easy for everyone. What matters is to seek help as soon as possible. Prof. Alvin gave an analogy on how one should deal with their social anxiety. “If we all treated anxiety like a physical sickness, we aren’t going to wait until the sickness such as a sore throat to become worse before doing something about it”. Following this argument, it should not be a big deal to go for counselling.
How does one recognize that a friendship has gone toxic? Prof. Alvin explained that if friends start to make one feel guilty or ashamed, the friendship is seen to be toxic. “No one should be ashamed of themselves and no one should have friends who shame them or make them feel guilty for who they are. That’s abuse”.
A toxic relationship doesn’t exist only in friendships, it might happen between a child and parents as well. So, there is a need to break the cycle of violence, to be more self aware of oneself in order to end toxic relationships whether it’s the other party or own self being the toxic one.
Instead, friendships should be built on trust, safety, security, respect, compassion and kindness. With those fulfilled only then comes a sense of belonging and acceptance. Through these pillars of friendship, one can empower others not only by supporting them but also in showing others their worth.
Hur Beng’s view on toxic friendship is a friendship that has gone sour where the toxic friend starts to leach or depend on the other friend to the extent that he or she becomes mentally draining.
Signs of toxic friendship for Akshina would be being in a friendship that doesn’t bring happiness but hurt and pain instead. It is also a friendship that is not genuine.
After discussing much about having a toxic friend, Rebecca brought up the need to check on oneself for toxicity before pointing fingers. People are mirrors. It is clear that everyone portrays themselves on other people. With that, one can be more aware to pick up the red flags of toxicity.
Furthermore, Rebecca pushed further on this topic by explaining that toxic relationships include blaming, emotional blackmail, silent treatment and more. Shockingly, all of these could be found at home, in our family or siblings. The way to deal with this issue is by setting the bar for compassion and forgiveness. Whenever one notices a toxic relationship, they should speak up about it instead of hiding it. Only then there’s room for the two parties to work on it. The process of reaching out to the toxic person might seem intimidating and gives the impression of making things worse, but it is the right way for both parties to heal. Rebecca concludes by describing a toxic relationship saying “It is not a full stop but a comma”.
Before moving to the QnA session, Sharenee summarized the whole forum. In terms of friendships, there exists grey areas. The pillars of friendship do come at times with frustration as there are so many dynamics to friendships. Hence, it is important to see where we are and heal where we are from. Only then we can reach out to others who are struggling as well. Besides, self reflection is needed to recognize a toxic relationship regardless of who’s toxic.
- What are the most common reasons students have trouble in making friends?
According to Akshina, she believed that the biggest hurdle was getting out of the comfort zone and initiating the conversation. This task might be daunting to some but not to others. However, it just takes courage as a simple smile or hello would do.
Another struggle would be trying to be natural. There is a tendency for people to be too self conscious in their behavior whether it would come off as weird.
Sharenee added that there is a fear of being disliked to the point where it affects one’s social life.
Furthermore, Prof. Alvin suggested that these troubles arise from a lack of the skills needed to make friends. These skills would include communication skills and social skills. Hence, people nowadays need to be trained in listening, speaking and most importantly playing the role of a good friend.
- How to overcome the fear of making friends/facing large crowds/attending social events?
Hur Beng suggested that before attending any events, one could try to invite an existing friend for company. The friend might have an existing circle of friends as well. Hence, these friends could act as a medium to meet new people. This method is helpful as it is much easier talking to an acquaintance than talking to an absolute stranger. At the same time, the existing friend might make friends during the event as well, hence the friends made can be shared. In short, inviting friends to social events would help ease the process of making friends.
Akshina suggested that friendships start with a smile and eventually develop to a “hello” and “how are you”. However, since there’s a mask covering the face, a wave would suffice.
Moving on to Rebecca, she thinks that it is helpful to think about the reasons for these fears without lingering too long on this question. The main focus should be on “how to overcome these fears”.
She shared with the viewers that she observed other people and learned from them in order to develop relational skills. She also urged everyone to start being interested in other people’s lives and not be self-centered in making friends.
In conclusion, all of these require hard work but these efforts are never wasted.
- What’s the right message to give to someone who is struggling with mental health or having difficulties in making friends.
Hur Beng tackled this question by suggesting to seek for help. An example would be getting help from a friend to widen their social circle or asking a friend for their support. What would be helpful to know is that surely there are others struggling on issues like these as well. Hence, it is completely fine to struggle on this issue.
Prof. Alvin added that wellness is not a state. The word “overcome” does not depict the situation fully because even if the issue has been dealt with, there are still chances for the issue to resurface. However, the efforts put into dealing with these issues are not in vain as it helps to make one more skilled in handling these issues whenever they arise in the future. Hence, Prof. Alvin views it as a work in progress since there’s a likelihood to return to square one. With that said, one should look at past successes and learn from it without giving up.
Another encouraging message from Akshina was that one should not be quick in coming up with the conclusion that counselling will not be effective. “You’ll never know until you try.” For those who know of people struggling with mental health, should know that they are the people that their friends need the most at such a vulnerable time, which is why their support matters the most.
Lastly from Rebecca, it is okay to let in the pain as well as loving oneself. She also suggested a video for the viewing of those who are struggling: The power of vulnerability by Brené Brown. She also added that while dealing with these pressing issues, emotional intimacy should be allowed. “Start with someone you trust”.
With the last question answered by the panelists, Sharenee concluded the whole session by encouraging the viewers to not shy away from seeking help as it is the right move to progress forward. Wellness is continuous, it is a work in progress that is not done in a day. Thus, keep trying and not give up despite going out of the comfort zone. Another thing would be to be supportive of those who are struggling as they are making a fearful step. Being a pillar for them to depend on would mean the world to them. Lastly, the viewers were reminded of self love. It is important to be comfortable in one’s own skin even if it is vulnerable to do so.
Written by: Michelle Cheong & Wu Wen Qi
Edited by: Pei Zoe