"The hard work of colleagues to bring face-to-face services online, to encourage collaboration...has been remarkable."
MS Society Scotland provides services and support to the 15,000 people living in Scotland with multiple sclerosis (MS) funding research into treatments and providing opportunities to connect, pick up self-management skills and socialise. From the Borders to Shetland, the organisation, its volunteers and network of local groups help provide support from local wellbeing sessions and family information days to webinars and information services like a free MS helpline.
The pandemic has had a profound effect for the people we support. We have known for a long time that people living with MS are more likely to be isolated and feel lonely than the rest of the population and the suspension of face-to-face services or local activities has made things even tougher for people.
Everyone in the MS community is either ‘clinically vulnerable’ or taking stronger measures, like shielding, and may face challenges like getting food, medicines and treatments. On top of that there is uncertainty, particularly for those shielding, as to what will happen next and when it will happen.
As a result our focus is on ensuring that our community has access to information, support and resources to maintain their wellbeing at a time when there are fewer options available. We don’t want anyone in our MS community to feel alone during this crisis.
Our Never Alone campaign (this link will take you away from our website) recognises this and we have rapidly expanded our services and tailored them so anyone who needs us can get help online or over the phone.
We moved quickly to set up webinars and sessions so people stay connected – not just with each other but with the latest clinical and academic information available on COVID-19. We’ve touched on a range of subjects from the virus itself and how it can affect treatment and MS to anxiety, exercise and employment issues.
MS is different for everyone and how people want to access support and when will differ too. The offering we created aims to give people the options they might need or choose.
Far from a sole focus on information we’ve offered opportunities for people to stay in touch or get involved in activities. Our daily ‘Time to Chat’ sessions provide a space to talk and share experiences and our workshop on creative writing was a huge hit.
Because of how quickly things have moved our programme of events began by anticipating what our community might want to access but as we continue forward we are listening to feedback and viewing participation to inform what we offer in the coming weeks and months.
All parts of the organisation are working together so that the package of support we offer is broad and accessible – our free MS helpline (this link will take you away from our website) provides access to nurses, employment experts, benefits advice and listening while the Scottish Government’s Wellbeing Fund has enabled us to offer this range of support further than would have otherwise been possible.
We have been fortunate to work with so many experts and talented individuals in this short time, all of whom have gladly given their time to help people stay connected. From leading academics and clinicians to writers, singers and artists, everyone we have asked has been happy to lend their time at short notice.
The speed at which we responded has been key in offering support. We’ve had the skills, experience and tools to deliver online services of these kinds for a while, though not at this volume. The hard work of colleagues to bring face-to-face services online, to encourage collaboration with external partners and to bring virtual sessions together has been remarkable.
It has also meant that we have been able to offer sessions on different scales. While our initial offering was targeted to people all across the UK, we were quickly able to add smaller workshops and webinars just for Scotland to keep our community informed.
Using the relationships we have at a national, regional and local level with external speakers, workshop leaders and people with lived experience of MS, we’ve offered support and services to people across Scotland.
This seems common to third sector organisations – the dedication and flexibility of staff members, volunteers and partners has brought great ideas to life quickly for the benefit of our communities.