Why Social Support is Vital for Mental Health

There are many, many factors that contribute to the quality of our mental health. One such factor involves the concept of social support. In the age of smartphones and social media, we might imagine we have more connections than ever. In reality — IRL — we need more than that.

Online relationships can be quite valuable but we primarily need a different kind of support. Humans evolved to crave and require face-to-face interactions and, contrary to the digital revolution, this need has not changed or vanished. In fact, the maintenance of our mental health is dependent upon it.

Factors for Good Mental Health

Obviously, this section could go on and on for days. Even so, there are some universal categories. For example, our physical health goes hand-in-hand with our mental health. This usually involves:

  • Daily exercise and activity
  • A regular sleep routine
  • Making consistent and healthy eating choices
  • Avoiding unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking
  • General awareness of and self-care for our physical needs

More specific to our emotional health, important factors are:

  • The presence (or lack thereof) of abuse
  • Relaxation and stress relief techniques
  • The quality of our relationships
  • Community and social activities

For our purposes here, let’s focus on that last item: community and social activities. This could include family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances. They become the people we turn to when we are in need. We lean on them in times of crisis. From such support, we can gain:

  • Enhanced quality of life
  • Better skills for dealing with adverse life events
  • A broader focus
  • A more positive self-image

Types of Supportive Behaviors

Generally speaking — in psychology terms — there are four kinds of supportive behaviors:

  1. Instrumental: Objective help and aid, e.g. rearranging your schedule to be available to someone in need.
  2. Informational: Suggestions and advice.
  3. Appraisal: Support that facilitates self-awareness and preparedness, e.g. when someone shares their experiences before you undergo something similar.
  4. Emotional: Sharing a compassionate ear, expressing love and empathy, displaying trust and caring.

How to Cultivate a Healthy Social Support System

Direct Communication

We’d like to believe that we are always on the same wavelength as our friends and loved ones. However, they cannot read your mind. Direct communication is the cornerstone of giving and getting support. Practice being blunt about your needs and your boundaries.

It Takes a Village

Take another look at the four kinds of supportive behaviors listed above. Almost certainly, no one person can offer all of them. This is why we each need a collective support system. It’s not realistic to expect any single person to handle such a nuanced and complex task.

Give and Take

Social support is almost always a two-way street. Sure, there are instances in which a person is simply not able to reciprocate. Outside of those cases, social support follows an unspoken social contract. We give when we can. We ask for help when we need it. As the incomparable Mister Rogers once explained: “Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”

Ask for Help

A major part of social support is getting comfortable with asking for help. Contrary to all the inspirational memes you encounter, it usually takes more than an upbeat quote to handle adversity. A great starting point is therapy.

Meeting regularly with a counselor is your chance to explore what you need and how to make it happen. You can practice with your therapist and problem-solve after your initial IRL attempts. Modern social life is tricky. There is absolutely no shame in getting some help!