May is Mental Health Awareness month! Mental Health America has identified several ways that we can improve our mental health outcomes by practicing healthy behaviors. One of those is by establishing a strong social support network.
What is Social Support?
Social support can be emotional support, meaning people you talk to or turn to when you need someone to be there for you, or positive interactions you engage in with other people. This may include doing things that are fun, relaxing or stimulating, as well as reaching out to others when you want to give or receive support. Many people find social support through their relationships at work, church, clubs or groups.
Why is Social Support Good for Our Mental Health?
This is interesting, as the research shows that different people benefit from different types of social support. For example, research suggests that men who are in committed relationships experience less distress than those who are not in relationships. However, women do not receive the same benefits by simply being in a relationship. Rather, women benefit from positive interactions and emotional support, rather than simply being in a committed relationship. This suggests that unless a relationship offers emotional support and/or positive interaction, many women do not experience positive benefits. There are also differences in the benefits experienced based on income, health and other factors.
7 Ways to Build Social Support
· Strengthen your current relationships. We all have connections to people through work, church/synagogue, exercise class, etc. Invite someone who is an acquaintance to do something after work or aerobics class. Develop your relationships with those you know peripherally to establish more close connections.
· Explore opportunities to get involved in the community. Does your neighborhood have a block party or holiday gatherings? Find out how you can get involved. You will meet people that you may see occasionally, and others you have never met.
· Find a gathering of like-minded people. Do you enjoy reading? Walking? Hiking? Biking? Discussion groups? Find a local group to join. Book clubs, MeetUp Groups, charity walking/biking/hiking events are great ways to meet people. If you belong to some of these groups, invite someone you like there to to go out for coffee or drinks after the group. Reach out.
· Join a support or social group. The internet and newspapers often list local support and self-help groups in the community. Browse these groups to see if there is one you could benefit from. Many are organized around health or mental health issues, but some are available for new moms/dads, people who have just moved to the neighborhood, singles, seniors and so on. A few are social in nature, meaning they get together in restaurants, travel together or attend sporting events as a group.
· Take a class. Classes on cooking, photography, genealogy, meditation, animal care and other hobbies and interests are available in most communities. Some meet once, others for several weeks. In addition to learning more about the topic of the class, you will meet people there who have similar interests. It is not uncommon for some of the class members to continue to meet informally to pursue their common interests.
· Start a new hobby. Whether you enjoy bird watching, playing cards or chess, ceramics or dog walking, you can often find others who would love to do it with you. Check your local recreation center and community bulletin boards to see what is going on around you. Post a notice in a safe public place that you are looking for people to get together to do whatever you are interested in – see who responds! Just be sure to screen people carefully and don’t disclose personal information, ie. where you live or work in the notice or until you know and trust people. Meeting in a public place is also a safety precaution that is often recommended.
· Volunteer. Local charities, schools and churches/synagogues are always looking for volunteers to help with projects. Volunteering is a great way to meet people and to build your social support network. Check online to see if there is a volunteer match organization in your area, or just ask around. Call local animal shelters, hospitals and other organizations you may have a special interest in to see how you can get involved. Civic groups are also a good way to meet people and help others.
A Word About Social Anxiety and Depression
For those who have social anxiety, making and keeping social support is especially challenging. Work with your therapist and/or prescriber to develop the skills necessary to manage your anxiety and interact with people when you are feeling less anxious. Often people get on medication to lessen their anxiety, but do not follow through with therapy to learn critical skills in self-soothing and interpersonal relations. To be effective, treatment should encompass both therapy and medication, as needed.
Isolation and withdrawal are symptoms of depression. If you have depression, being socially isolated can make it worse. Seek help for your depression, and make a commitment to be less isolated as you begin to feel better. Therapy can help you get get comfortable reaching out to others for support, to enjoy the company of another person or to have fun.
1. Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2012). The Role of Social Support in Reducing Psychological Distress. https://secure.cihi.ca/free_products/AiB_ReducingPsychological%20DistressEN-web.pdf
2. Mental Health America. (2014). Social Support: Getting and Staying Connected. http://ww2w.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/social-support-getting-and-staying-connected