It’s important not to deal with depression entirely on your own. You need a support system of caring people--family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors-- who make it easy for you to be yourself. Building and maintaining a strong support system of people who can provide encouragement, help you to keep moving and involved in meaningful activity, and help you challenge your negative thinking is a critical part of a self-care plan.
How does a support system help?
When you have a network of supportive relationships, you benefit in the following ways:
- Improved physical and emotional health. Support systems are beneficial for maintaining physical and mental health. Our relationships can help us stay active and engage in activities that we find meaningful. It can also improve our emotional well-being. Researchers believe these benefits come from a combination of increased mental activity and reduction in stress.
- Improved sense of belonging and security. Spending time with people and knowing you’re not alone reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness. Having people to reach out to in a time of need can be comforting. Engaging with others who have experienced depression, such as by joining a support group, can help you see that you’re not alone and there are ways to get through depression.
- Better problem-solving. Your support network can help you work out problems and reduce stress. Chances are others are dealing with similar issues, and may be able to provide you with useful guidance, advice, and strategies that have worked for them.
- Accountability. Being accountable to someone else has been shown to be a key factor in making successful lifestyle changes. Accountability works best when another person is working toward their own goals too; in addition to reporting your progress to someone else, allow that person to be accountable to you for the goals they’ve set for themselves.
Building your support network
In thinking about your support network, consider the following:
- Who do you want to include in your support network?
- The people in your life who are sympathetic and not critical will be the best source of support for you.
- Do you want a large or a small support network?
- Some people find it most helpful to have a large support group, while others do best with a small support system.
Would you prefer a network that’s “formal” or “informal”?
This is a matter of personal preference. You may find the formal setting of a support group to be the best environment for you to share and receive feedback and hear what has worked for people who have been in your position. On the other hand, you may prefer to form a more informal support network with one or more friends. You may also benefit from a combination of both.
Remember that the goal of building your social support network is to reduce your stress level, not add to it. Watch for situations that seem to drain your energy. For example, avoid spending too much time with someone who is constantly negative and critical. Similarly, steer clear of people involved in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse, especially if you've struggled with addictions.
What if you have trouble identifying supportive people in your life?
If you don’t currently have a strong social network, it’s never too late to start building one. Even if your initial network consists of only the professionals involved in your treatment, it is important to begin to trust and share your recovery with others.
What is a support group?
Support groups are less structured than group therapy, and are focused primarily on providing a safe, confidential environment for participants to form connections and share their experiences and strategies for coping. People with a mood disorder tend to isolate themselves, and to think they are the only ones feeling as they do. A support group can be a good place to address both of these barriers to recovery. Research shows that hearing from and sharing with others with similar experiences can be extremely helpful for those facing depression and related disorders.
Could I benefit from a support group?
Although support groups are not a substitute for professional mental health treatments, they can be a great complement to treatment, and a resource for those who are uninsured, underinsured, or cannot afford copays to access some extra help.
Where can I find a local support group?
Every community is different. Although support groups aren’t offered everywhere, chances are you can find a group near you. To begin with, explore what’s available at your local hospital, healthcare center, community mental health service, college or university. Support groups are also organized through the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), the nation’s leading patient-directed organization focused on helping people with mood disorders. The DBSA has chapters across the country, overseeing more than 1,000 peer-run support groups. In the event that a “live” group has not been formed where you live, you might want to explore a support group that meets online.
Who leads a support group?
Some support groups are led or facilitated by a professional such as a social worker or counselor, while others are peer-run, with no formal leader. When a leader is present, his or her job is to facilitate sharing, not to guide the group in any particular direction or to provide advice or therapy. There is no evidence that one approach is better than the other.
What should I expect to gain from the experience?
Participants report a long list of benefits from being part of a support group, including:
- Connecting with others with similar experiences, knowing, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone on the journey to recovery.
- Gaining practical skills and advice for living with mental illness, such as what to expect from different medications, how to adhere to a treatment plan, and how to manage side effects.
- Learning new coping strategies from others with firsthand experience.
- Finding a safe place to “vent” about frustrations like insurance or side effects.
- Discussing strategies for confronting stigma at home, at work and in the community.
- Gaining motivation to stick with a treatment plan.
Staying engaged with others
Look for opportunities to stay engaged in other people’s lives and to include others in your life. Consider joining or increasing your involvement in groups formed around activities you enjoy. Volunteering or taking a class are other ways to get out there, interact, and build supportive relationships.
Although online communication should be combined with face-to-face interactions, you may also want to explore online social networking opportunities. There are hundreds of social networking sites that focus on every need, interest, and age group. These include a number of great sites for people who are managing a chronic illness, dealing with the loss of a loved one, going through a divorce, or experiencing other life changes.