While I was hospitalized for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in 2019, I took classes on coping strategies, how to manage my condition, and how to create a health plan to stay healthy. A large part of this plan involves building a support system.
I didn’t talk about my struggles back then. I would have said I was fine if asked, but I was in pain, lonely and broken. If you don’t tell people you’re hurting, it’s hard to get what you need. So after I left the hospital, I let it all out. I blogged about my trip and told friends and family exactly what was going on. It was liberating.
Opening up also helped me stay accountable, which is hard for me because I don’t set boundaries.
I don’t mean to say that I lacked support while I was in that dark place. My husband and my best friend Maya helped as much as they could. They were the only ones I was completely honest with and their support never wavered.
No matter what was going on, Maya was quick to tell me when I was making bad decisions or not taking care of myself. She never let me skate while being incredibly supportive. She was direct, and while it may have hurt my feelings at the time, I needed to hear it.
Maya was the one who told me there was medication and therapy when my psychiatrist didn’t. She was the one who researched the Menninger Clinic and urged me to go.
If you’re struggling with mental illness, you need to get your own Maja. Having a solid support system is critical to recovery. Research shows that a support system can have a positive impact on overall health, especially for women, the elderly and students. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “a lot of stress,” a 2015 study found that the average stress level for people with emotional support was 5 out of 10, compared to 6.3 out of 10 for people without.
The Mayo Clinic says studies show that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a greater risk of poor mental health and poor cardiovascular health, as well as other health problems. Other studies show the benefit of a social support network, including the following:
- Improving the ability to cope with stressful situations.
- Alleviating the effects of emotional stress.
- Promoting good mental health throughout life.
- Improving self-esteem.
- Promoting a healthy lifestyle.
- Encouraging adherence to a treatment plan.
If you don’t have support now, that’s okay. It took me a long time to build a team because I was afraid of being judged. That’s what the stigma of mental illness does – it makes you feel alone and ashamed. It’s time to put an end to this.
Here are some tips from the American Psychological Association for strengthening your support network:
Reach out to family and friends. Simply saying hello or offering to help with a task can spark a conversation.
Use technology. Connect with people far away via email, text or video calls.
Connect with people who share your interests. Join a club, volunteer at a local organization, or take a course to meet people who share your interests.
Seek peer support. If you are facing a personal challenge, consider joining a peer support group to take care of your mental health and connect with people who are facing something similar.
Ask for help. Contact your local library, place of worship or community center to learn more about local events you may want to attend or groups you may want to join.
It seems scary to ask for help, but the alternative is scarier. One local resource I highly recommend is NAMI Greater Corpus Christi. I didn’t know about NAMI until last year; I wish I had found it years ago. NAMI GCC offers support groups and classes for people with mental illness as well as friends and family to help understand the complexities of mental illness. Everyone I’ve met has been affected by a mental health condition in some way or has a loved one with one, so they are very supportive and want to help.
I wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for my best friend and husband (who was busy with my kids, work, and illness). They weren’t going to let me fall through the cracks like so many people with mental illness do. I am grateful for that and consider myself lucky.
Their honesty sometimes irritates, but that’s when I need to hear it the most. And if I screw up, I know they (and everyone now in my network) have a safety net waiting.
For more than 20 years, Heather Loeb has experienced severe depression, anxiety and personality disorder while battling the stigma of mental health. She is the creator of Unruly Neurons (www.unrulyneurons.com), a blog dedicated to normalizing depression, and a member of State Representative Todd Hunter’s Suicide Prevention Task Force.
THE MIND MATTER
Now more than ever we need to take care of our mental health. Guest columnist Heather Loeb discusses why and explores other important mental health topics in this special series.