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5 Steps to Positive Social Support When You Have a Mental Illness

Although I’ve previously struggled with schizoaffective disorder to a disabling degree, I luckily found excellent medications that rehabilitated me. Old hallucinations and delusions gave way to a calmer mind, enabling me to rebuild my life and go back to work. Yet medications are only part of my recovery. The positive and supportive people in my life give me energy and zest for life.

It was difficult to find such friends for many years. I mistrusted people because they seemed superficial and unable to understand my grave mental illness. But, as I’ve transitioned from disability to wellness, I’ve discovered steps on how to create a bastion of social support. Much of it is actually introspection, discovering who you are, and then acting on it outwardly. Keep this in mind through all the steps.

1. Separate yourself from negative people, and don’t believe their grim predictions about you.

Many of us with mental illness believe we are doomed to live a limited existence. Providers, family members and friends may predict that you’ll never be able to hold down a job, be in a relationship or start a family. They may tell you that you’ll be mentally debilitated for the rest of your life. It’s easy to give in to this negativity because our conditions make us feel weak.

In order to fight against such pessimism, an attitude shift is required. You must believe that regardless of your mental health, everyone is entitled to living a fulfilling life, packed with positive relationships and interests to share with others. No one has the right to tell you that you cannot pursue full recovery. You have the right to do so. When you realize that negative predictions do not determine your destiny, you will feel empowered to walk away from such people.

2. Surround yourself with positive people.

Find new people who are positive and encouraging. With each person, ask yourself: Do they support you for being you? Or do they think something is wrong with you? If it’s the latter, they’re not a healthy person to be around. After inventorying your relationships, you may discover you already have people who offer this respect. Stick around them and get away from the downers. Their positivity will uplift you. In the case of psychiatric providers, find ones who believe in your capacity to recover.

It can be hard to get away from negative people, especially if they are family. Go online to find other people. Search for online support groups, perhaps focused on a specific diagnosis or type of experience (domestic violence, substance use, sexuality, etc.) There are independent sites and also social media. I personally like Facebook groups and independent forums because they allow for lengthy conversations. Others prefer the brevity of Twitter and Instagram, and those are great places to find mental health and disability bloggers and advocates too.

3. Pursue your interests and find like-minded people.

Take time to introspect and figure out your interests. If you don’t have any yet, think of things you’d like to try. Then go online to find communities with these similar interests. You can find meetup groups in your area, and/or find people online. Even passive interests can be pursued. If you like a certain TV show, find a fan site or a Facebook group page. Being a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 myself, I found an MST3K disabilities support group!

4. Determine personal goals and get support from others.

One of the worst things about mental illness is that it creates inertia. We may have goals and aspirations deep down within, but we feel powerless to make them manifest. But when you get social support, you now get the strength to pursue personal goals.

Think about what you’d like to do. It can be basic, complex or even “impossible.” They can range from self-improvement (weight loss, cooking healthy food) to creative pursuits (learning to play guitar, knitting a blanket) and beyond. Then write it down on paper to get organized. After this, share your goals with others and ask for feedback and support. Regular conversations allow others to help you stay motivated, even when you feel weak. Always exercise the Golden Rule: remain thankful to others and offer the same unconditional regard that you’d like for yourself.

5. Let your friends become cheerleaders.

When you have a goal, the most important thing is not to accomplish it quickly. Rather, it is to keep the goal in mind, even when it feels like no progress is being made. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a great quote: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

I like to add to the end of this: “If you can’t move forward, then think about moving forward.” By keeping your goal in mind, it stays alive. It’s easy to get hard on yourself when you feel like you’re not making progress, but that’s where friends come in. Sharing your dreams with kind people will invite them to be cheerleaders for you. They will encourage you when you feel too weak to keep going.

Recovery from mental illness is not about self-mastery. It is a journey with twists, turns and detours, and is rarely a linear process. The most important thing is to bounce back from setbacks, and having strong social supports can help with this. Always remember you are a valuable and unique person whom people would love to get to know. If others are permitted this dignity, then so are you.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash