How to support overseas friends and family dealing with COVID

If you have loved ones overseas and trying to get home, or perhaps living in a country where lockdowns, restrictions and high COVID numbers are an everyday thing, here’s how you can help.

This article is adapted from a piece previously published on Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service website.

Rewind to the beginning of 2020, and it probably felt like everybody was in it together as far as the COVID-19 pandemic was concerned. But if you’re in Australia and have friends or family still overseas, it might not feel like that anymore. In fact, it probably hasn’t for quite some time.

“There’s certainly a sense of disconnection now because it’s quite different here in Australia compared to what people living in many other countries are experiencing,” says Dr Sarah Bentley from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology and co-author of Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19.

“We want to be in this together but the reality now is that we aren’t.”

If that’s left you wondering how you can support friends and family overseas, given the challenge of both distance and very different lived experiences, these tips and suggestions may help.

Maintain regular contact

This will vary depending on the nature of your relationship, but Bentley says something as simple as being in touch frequently and on a regular basis can make a big difference.

“Remembering to check in about something that happened last week lets them know you care, gives them a sense of continuity and will help them feel more connected to you,” she says.

“It doesn’t have to be a lengthy conversation every time – and sending text messages, photos and even funny memes between phone calls can also be really effective for maintaining contact. But it’s frequency that will ensure you’re woven into the fabric of their lives and their weekly existence.”

Talk about everyday things

Taking time to understand what life is like for them right now is important but try to talk about other things as well.

“It can be easy and even quite natural to talk only about news headlines at times like this,” says Bentley.

“But it’s important to ask about everyday domestic things, too, like, ‘How’s the cat?’ and ‘What’s your garden like at the moment?’

“Conversations are much more intimate when you talk about things that are unique and personal to each other’s lives, and it also reminds people that they’re not a statistic. They’re still living their own life regardless of the bigger picture, a life that you know about and are interested in.”

Share details about your life

Depending on where your loved ones are and what situation they are in, it might feel awkward to share details about your own life if you feel as though you’re comparatively better off here in Australia.

Bentley has personal experience about how awkward this might feel right now.

“If I take a call from overseas when I’m out shopping or sitting in a busy cafe and they ask what all the noise is, it seems a bit embarrassing because it’s a reminder of how different my life is,” she says.

But not only does regulating when you chat and what you share risk creating an even bigger sense of disconnection, it inhibits authentic communication, too.

Because, Bentley says, even though you might not be dealing with the same COVID-related issues, you’ll still have things in your life that you want, or need, to talk about.

“What we know is that we feel good when we’re able to help others, so providing your loved one with opportunities to feel like they can support you too can be really beneficial. It’s not about diminishing their difficulties, it’s about fostering a sense of reciprocal connection.”

Provide practical help

The internet makes this possible from the other side of the world.

“It might be organising a grocery shop to be delivered or ordering some new supplies for a hobby or interest as a surprise,” says Bentley.

“If you’re concerned about a friend or family member and feel like they’d benefit from seeking professional support, after talking to them about it, you could even research their local contacts and links online if they seem too overwhelmed to know where to start. Gestures like that can make life easier.”

Look after yourself

It’s been well over a year since the pandemic began so if you are supporting others, you’ve probably been doing it for some time.

“On top of the fact that we’ve still been impacted by the pandemic here in Australia, that can be draining,” says Bentley, who recommends prioritising self-care with as much conviction as we do caring for others.

“Looking after yourself is a way of supporting others, because when you’re struggling it’s hard to be helpful to anyone else. Check in with yourself regularly, particularly immediately after you’ve been in touch with a loved one overseas.

“Do you feel drained? Helpless? Overly worried? It doesn’t mean you should quit staying in touch, but you might need to manage the conversations, whether that’s making them shorter or choosing a better time.”

For example, if you call just before bed due to time differences but then get a bad night’s sleep as a result, you might need to work out an alternative.

And all the usual self-care strategies apply.

“As well as getting enough sleep, try to eat well, exercise regularly, do things you enjoy and make sure you’re putting time into your social connections here in Australia,” adds Bentley.

Support services

From within Australia

If you are in Australia and supporting friends or family overseas is challenging your wellbeing, you can talk to one of our counsellors at Beyond Blue’s dedicated Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service on 1800 512 348.

From overseas

Beyond Blue’s counselling support service is a national Australian service and is not able to safely support international callers. We know that many Australians abroad are experiencing distressing circumstances, and we’re working hard to find ways to support their mental health.

If you’re an Australian currently overseas, we encourage you to reach out to local services including medical centres or hospitals. Or contact an Australian embassy or consulate in the country where you’re located for guidance finding appropriate support in that country.

The Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website may also be able to provide further guidance around issues that might be impacting you.

If you need urgent help or have significant welfare concerns, emergency consular assistance is available 24 hours a day by calling the Consular Emergency Centre (CEC) in Canberra on +61 2 6261 3305.