Social support for mental health
My mind runs wild with thoughts of inadequacy. Depression weighs down on my body, my brain wades through a heavy fog of negativity. It whispers to me in the silent moments, telling me that I am not worthy of love and friendship, success and happiness. It polarises me, pushing me away from all the people I care most for.
I’ve come a long way from that turbulent place - fought many battles against those feelings, and I learned a lot. Something so valuable was understanding that although these thoughts can be isolated, I am not alone. Social support, be it from friends or family or elsewhere, can be a powerful tool in buffering against the effects of mental illness. The moment I opened up and let others in was when I allowed myself to heal from the chaos within.
Asking for help or simply sharing your pain isn’t easy, we aren’t taught in school how to be honest with our emotions, or how to let others in when all we want is to be alone. We are taught that it's best to get through it, to keep you chin up and push forward, to suffer in silence. Research has shown that the presence of social support can actually decrease the negative outcomes from a variety of mental illnesses. Social support can be broken down into three categories: emotional support, instrumental support, and informational support.
Emotional support is what we might expect social support to look like, it is the offering emotional availability in our times of need. It is a shoulder to cry on, or the safe space you go to when you need to unburden yourself of the whirlwind of emotions.
Instrumental support is more practical, immediate assistance. It could be receiving help with cleaning or self-care tasks, meeting immediate physical needs such as food or shelter, or providing transport to appointments.
Informational support is simply the offering of guidance. It can be anything from casual advice to formal mentorships, or even using available resources to inform your decision making.
Together, these three types of social support form a strong network that can help us get through our hardest times. It’s not always easy to reach out and ask, but here are some tips on how you can start that conversation with your friends and family if you need some social support:
Go with what feels good – Contact those you feel secure and safe with, using communication methods you’re more comfortable with. For example, if you are happier texting than reaching out via phone calls. You can take your time crafting your message and communicating your needs without the added stress of unfamiliar territory.
Write it down – They say practice makes perfect, and that is true in a lot of cases, but the goal is to communicate your needs without overthinking them. It can help to write down how you’re feeling, what you’re going through, or what support you might find helpful. This can guide you in deciding exactly what and how much you wish to share.
Be honest – Being honest with your loved ones isn’t always simple but being as open as possible will allow them insight into your situation, and you might find that they’ve struggled with something similar. We might feel isolated, but we are never really alone, and honesty is the key to unlocking that door and letting social support in.
Communicate your needs – Most of the time we can’t choose what we want for breakfast, so how do we decide on the types of social support that suit us? Try going back to the first point and reflect on what feels good. Do you like talking for hours on the phone, or maybe just going for quiet walks with your loved ones? Do you enjoy the company of others in your home, or would you rather text your friends while watching Strictly Come Dancing? Reflecting on your relationships and what feels right will help you to decide and communicate to others how they can support you with your mental health.
Finally, take your time and be kind to yourself through this process. One conversation won’t solve everything, but it’s a great start to tackling these issues together. Remember that everyone has their own battles, so just because we feel isolated doesn’t mean we have to stay that way.