Building social support

Some of us find ourselves in a place where we are deeply isolated in our lives. This is sadly a common problem for many people with ongoing mental health problems. Social support is one of the factors that help to build our resilience – our ability to handle difficulties. Isolation has been a major problem for me most of my life, and in my opinion certainly contributed in a big way to the mental health problems I was suffering as a young child. There are many different things that can contribute to becoming isolated, which can change the kind of approach you may find most effective in overcoming it. In my case, some of the things behind my isolation were very simple ones – such as being a creative arty person in a small school with a strong sports focus. Others were compounding issues such as developing PTSD in my teens and finding my peer group weren’t able to support me – their withdrawal distinctly increased my symptoms and distress which only made me more different and awkward and therefore more isolated. This kind of spiral – the experience of mental illness and/or trauma makes you behave differently and need different things, which can lead to your social support withdrawing, which can make the illness and distress worse – is a common one for many people. In addition, withdrawal from social contact is a pretty common symptom in many mental illnesses, so your social network can fall apart or move on while you’re hunkered down in a burrow somewhere. When you start to feel better and look around, it’s a bit like Rip Van Winkle coming home to find the whole world changed and his children grown. But too, for a lot of us isolation is part of the landscape in which vulnerability to trauma and mental illness is then grown.

I’ve rebuilt my life on more than occasion only to have it all burn again, and I’ve learned a few things from mistakes I’ve made over the years. Maybe some of these will be helpful to you.

  1. Sometimes you have to leave. I could bend myself into pretzel shapes trying to make friends at school, but really what I needed is to look elsewhere. There’s a few reasons for this – one of which is that having been targeted by bullies, even students who liked me were afraid of also being bullied if they spent time with me. But that’s another story! It would have been better for me to have been home-schooled and looked for mates in after school drama classes and activities like that.
  2. Borrowing the social network of a friend or romantic interest. It’s nice to be invited out and have people to hang around with. But if things go pear shaped you’ll be left picking yourself up on your own. Some of the energy you’ve invested into those relationships could have been spent making mates of your own.
  3. Putting up with very unequal relationships. It can get tempting to take what you can get and accept some miserable relationships when it seems that nothing else is on offer. I don’t mean never care about anyone else, or don’t be kind to your elderly stroppy neighbour. I mean taking on someone and treating them like your best friend when that’s really not what they are. Confiding personal information that is later used for gossip, nursing them through heartbreak when they never show on your bad days, always paying for the night out when they could afford to shout it now and then.
  4. Expecting more of your mates than they’ve got. When I was a teenager dealing with PTSD my mates at the time freaked out and distanced themselves. That was really painful and unhelpful, but I do get that a bunch of 15 year olds really weren’t equipped or supported to know how to relate to me. They had no idea why I was so reactive and overloaded, and frankly if I’d been given good support from other adults they might have had a model to emulate. Most of us don’t have friends who are deeply educated and experienced in mental health and trauma sensitivity. They are going to get it wrong. (frankly, even if they have loads of information and experience they will still get it wrong! That’s just the nature of being human I’m afraid) I use a lovely quote by Barbara Kingsolver as my own guide:

The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away

We all need contact with other people to maintain mental health. There may be different quantities for different people – some of us need more social contact than others. We also need a range of different kinds of relationships in our lives, from the barest acquaintances to the closest of kindred spirits. Sometimes we may be better at maintaining one kind of relationship than others. Some of us have a couple of really close mates but almost no one else in our lives. It doesn’t matter how awesome the friend is, you still need other layers in your life. Others of us maintain a healthy bunch of friends we see now and then, but never seem to find anyone really close. Some of us find ourselves in a pretty bleak space where we don’t really have anyone.

I started rebuilding my own networks from the outside in. That is, I started looking for acquaintances and people I might hang out with occasionally before I went looking for closer friends. There’s less being asked of someone at this level, so a lot more people will make great acquaintances. A few years back I started going to Mifsa (Mental Illness Fellowship of SA) looking for company. When I first walked in to the activity centre and looked around, I was really disappointed. No one else there seemed to be like me at all. Many of the other people openly asked what I was diagnosed with when they first met me, which I found really confronting. I was at the time very closeted about my mental illnesses and I refused to disclose. On one occasion another participant took this as a challenge and told me they’d be watching me to work out what I had! This wasn’t a great start and I stopped going.

Then it occurred to me that there could have been a whole stream of people like me, with my interests or similar experiences coming through the activity centre over the years – but until one of us stayed put we were never going to meet each other. So I decided to keep going anyway. It helped to have somewhere, however imperfect. Access to resources such as the internet, landline phone, cheap meals and food bank helped get me through some really tough times. And although I wasn’t close to most of the other people there, they were company, someone to play pool with or watch a movie with. Just that basic friendliness meet a need for me.

Sound Minds (Voice Hearers Group) was  a real turning point for me. Again, initially it was less than ideal. I was the only person there with a dissociative diagnosis, and at that time Mifsa had no books, fact sheets, experience or resources of any kind geared to dissociation. I had to explain myself a lot and I was very stressed and sensitive about my diagnosis. But I was accepted, and they let me come and be upset about my life without telling me I should look on the bright side. Out of this the Dissociative Initiative was born and now things are changing. Sound Minds was also originally geared towards education. The first time I went along and shared that I was lonely, the room went quiet. Several other people then shared that they were lonely too, and it was just something to get used to. I went home and decided that a room full of lonely people was daft. Gradually the group became more social, and now I have the whole bunch round to my place for a camp fire catch up regularly.

I’ve started to build networks through the mental health community by turning up to lots of events and being friendly and talking with other people. I’m starting to get to know people. I also want to make connections through different networks – which is part of the motivation for the mad amount of study I do in different areas. But I started much smaller – by looking in places where I had interests (such as art) or felt accepted despite challenges (walking into a building marked “Mental Illness Fellowship”).

I have also found online communities at times to be very supportive. Facebook helps keep me in touch with people I don’t get to see often or those I don’t know well enough to give my details to. Skype keeps me linked in to people a long way away. Some nights just being able to find someone else awake and have a quick chat even if about nothing personal has helped take the edge off. I’ve been part of online groups through Yahoo which helped me to understand a lot more about my mental health and have other people to talk to.

For relationships that have been intense and distant, as in the instance of some family members, I’ve read about relationships under stress and learned about boundaries, polarising, and other common issues. I’ve worked on lowering the intensity and reactivity in these relationships, resetting back to friendly acquaintance if I can and re-growing things gently. I’ve also done a lot of work on myself, accepting myself, learning assertiveness, better communication, and how to better contain the kinds of symptoms that cause me problems in my relationships – such as raw emotional intensity, impatience, ambivalence, emotional disconnection and preoccupation, irritability, and… you get the picture. I’ve had to do a lot of building a better relationship with myself instead of trying to resolve emotional pain through company. Having said that, I’ve been quite stunned at the incredible difference having some emotional and social support has made for me. A lot of that emotional reactivity and instability have settled by themselves. It is too damn hard to do this all by yourself.

I’ve had to let go of some relationships that were really important to me because they weren’t working and sometimes I am just too fragile to handle it. I’ve also had to learn how to accept a relationship that isn’t quite what I wanted or that changes over time. Sometimes you end up in a relationship where you are treating the other person as a best friend and they are treating you as an acquaintance – so you do a lot more nurturing and being involved then they do. It’s been a hard lesson to learn that sometimes if that’s the level of relationship they want or are comfortable with, that’s what it needs to be. Very close friends take time and energy to maintain, and there’s only room for so many in our lives sadly. Sometimes you think someone is awesome but so do a few other folks and they’ve already got their complement of close mates. It’s okay, keep looking, if you’re a good friend and you let things develop at a good gentle pace, you’ll make them.

9 thoughts on “Building social support

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I could suggest it as a social activity or as one of the community weekend (i.e. camp) activities….

    On second thought my social skills may currently be okay but I am let down my fear of eye contact and getting mentally exhausted due to overstimulation, anxiety, stress etc. Things that can be worked on I suspect.

    You make a good point that self-perception may be holding me back (still) I have had to consciously adjust it especially around MIFSA, maybe it's time for another look.

    Observing other people is an interesting idea, it would be a challenge as I have an issue around looking at other people and being looked at myself. Not to say that I can't do it. 🙂

    Thanks for wishing me good luck, I think I'll need it. Also thanks for the blog and taking the time to respond.


  2. fantastic stuff sarah and so true… it only clicked today that during my recent 'problems' i went straight to where i felt comfortable… oh, and can i steal this please?!?!


  3. Hi Stephen,
    Could campfire catch ups be an idea to suggest to GROW perhaps?
    I'm sorry you feel like you're very un-skilled socially. 😦 There are a lot of skills involved in social interaction, and you're certainly not alone in feeling like you're short of a few. I've found some things easier than others and I reckon my current friends would certainly attest that at times I'm unskilled and difficult and hypersensitive and generally a pain. Something I did decide to do a number of years ago is to deliberately model a few people I knew who were very socially confident and comfortable and generally well liked. One of the things I noticed was they expected to be welcomed and generally were – whereas I expected to be ignored or treated badly and generally was – as you mentioned above. I also noticed that they didn't let shyness or embarrassment stop them making eye contact, giving compliments and making other people feel welcome, so I tried to communicate more about those things instead of assuming people knew I was happy to see them, or assuming everyone else was so confident and secure there was no need for me to say that their talk moved me or I liked their shoes. 🙂 Part of it too though is hopefully finding relationships where your limitations are accepted and understood and you don't have to try 110% all the time. Sometimes feeling that you're not good socially itself becomes a block and something that makes feeling comfortable with other people difficult. Good luck with it and I hope you're able to build some supports. 🙂


  4. Hi Anonymous, I'm sorry you're having such a tough time finding anywhere you can be safe. It's hard to know what to suggest when I don't know you or your situation – I guess first off I want to say be good to yourself and take care of yourself because that's a rough place to be in and you need all the care you can get. Sometimes different types of environments feel safer, perhaps you might want to consider online groups, or making some social contact through an interest or hobby you have? That might be a less stressful environment than a mental health place? There is always going to be difficulties with other people, sometimes they're just hard to get along with, sometimes their own stuff makes them not very safe, sometimes some are bullies and very hurtful. But isolation and withdrawal aren't the only responses to these behaviours, sometimes a more self protective response is to speak out or try to work things out. Sometimes too, those of us who've been badly hurt at times can be pretty raw and sensitive, and smaller personality conflicts can feel really stressful and awful, like the original abuse is happening again when it's really the usual difficulties of getting along with other people. I'm not trying to discount your experiences by saying that! It seems to me that if you isolate yourself whenever you have a bad experience with another person, you're giving them an awful lot of power in your life. You can protect yourself – even by withdrawing, and stop abuse happening. It's very painful and exhausting to feel like abuse never ends and no where is safe. But you are keeping yourself safe and stopping abuse. You do deserve to be safe, to find a community, to feel a sense of belonging and connection with other people. It can be really hard at times and it is very discouraging when something we try doesn't work out, but if you keep looking and maybe try some creative approaches to making contact with other people, I hope you can find or make what you're looking for.


  5. Hi Anonymous,

    you might want to give it another go, I've found that people are only too happy to treat me how I think they'll treat me (eg. with disapproval) so acting as if people should treat me with some respect has helped.


  6. Hi Sarah,

    read this a couple of times, I am envious of your campfire catch-ups.

    Looks like for me it's a case of working on and building a better relationship with myself until emotional and social support comes along (to summarise that paragraph).

    Every person really is unique, in their history as well their genetics, you are obviously quite socially adept but at times things have gotten in the way. For me getting along with people is like learning calculus is for some others, it's like my brain isn't built to work that way so in order to have a future I have to become as skilled as I can at something that doesn't come naturally to me. I think I still see myself as deficient where I shouldn't be.
    There is a lot that can get in the way of getting along with people, for me it is such a highly skilled craft that I fear I will fall well short of mastering it well enough to make a real difference.

    I should not ignore that feeling safe and at ease around people is important, I guess it will take time for trust to rebuild and to override old fears and paranoias.

    Thanks for giving us your take on what social support is and I will save it for future reference.


  7. What do you do if you are victimized wherever you go? Even Mifsa was not safe for me. I did not expect abuse to come from within a fellowship. I am glad that you have found great support within the community of the mentally ill. For some of us, having any contact with others invites bullying and hence we will continue to live in isolation hiding our dissociation from the world.The abuse never ever ends


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