A support network is a group of people comprised of medical professionals, friends and family that you can turn to to help you cope with your mental illness.  Your support network can ground you, provide emotional support and coping skills.  Often, just being in the company of someone you feel safe with is enough to help you feel a bit better.   But how do you build a support network?

It can be very difficult to divulge that you have a mental illness.    But you likely have people in your life that you are pretty sure will react with compassion.  Start with those people.  Explain your illness and how it makes you feel.  Talk about the times you need encouragement and support.

The first person on your support list should be your psychiatrist. If your mood has dipped severely (or you’re manic), its time to make an appointment.  A sign of a good psychiatrist is how responsive they are to you trying to contact them.  If they get back to you within a day’s time with actionable advice you’ve likely got a good psychiatrist.  However, if your psychiatrist is very slow or doesn’t respond to you at all, it might be time to look for a new doctor.

Its also a good idea to see a therapist on a regular basis to process the events in your life. A therapist can also teach you tools to use to deal with your mood state.  Your therapist will likely teach you techniques to challenge your negative thoughts.  A good therapist can also help you learn how to diffuse anxiety.

Online support groups can also be useful.  You do have to be a little cautious…not all online support groups are created equal.  Read through some posts. Make sure there’s not a lot of drama going on or bad advice being given.

Next are friends and family that you trust. Have you told any of your friends and family that you struggle with mental illness? I know it can be very difficult to open up about this subject. There will be people that you know are safe and can handle what you’re telling them, but its still hard to talk about.  Be prepared that some people simply do not understand mental illness.  These are not your people.  Of course you can still be friends, but they probably aren’t someone that you want to make part of your support group.  So look for those friends that are compassionate, understanding and positive.

Perhaps the most difficult part of building a support network is actually talking to people about your mental illness.  Many people have never talked about their illness. You are brave to break your silence.  

Write down some bullet points and statistics to help you get the conversation started. You might start your request that they join your support network by asking your friend/family member if they’ve noticed you avoiding situations or spending a lot of time in your house. Tell them what mental illness you have, how it affects you and how they can help.  Again, having some notes with you will help.

For example, you could ask a family member if they’ve noticed differences in your personality lately.  You could explain that you have been experiencing symptoms of your illness and then tell them about your condition/mood state.

If your friend/family member shows interest in what you are sharing, ask if they would be willing to be part of your support network.  Explain that this just means that you can call on them when you’re feeling ill. 

If they agree, don’t make them guess when you’re having problems.  Tell them; ask for help when you need it.  This can be difficult, but the rewards are worth it.  It feels good to receive support when you ask for it.  To make it easier, write down what you want to say to your support network member. 

Make a list of things that friends/family members can do to help you when you need it. *calling/texting you

*going out for coffee

*coming to your house

*exercising with you

*running errands with you

*helping you with a task that you find mentally challenging

Add as many things as you can think of so that friends/family have plenty of options for helping you.

Keep in frequent touch with your support network. Call/text/email friends/family just to stay close. Just being in contact with your support network will give you strength.

I realize this is a daunting task, but the end results are so worth it.  Just take it piece by piece and be gentle with yourself.

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