When you have a mental illness, one of the key tools to have at your disposal is a good support system.
What is a support system?
A mental health support system is the people around you who you trust to give you advice and guidance, and help you both in crisis and in everyday tasks in your recovery.
I’ve written about support systems before, but I’m aiming to go into a bit more detail in this post, exploring what a good support system looks like, and things to look out for when you’re putting your support system together.
A – Accessible
It’s important that the people in your support system are accessible. It’s no use relying on someone to be there for you in a crisis if they take 12 hours to reply to your text. Be realistic, and think about your expectations (see E).
B – Bond
Not every member of your support system is going to be a friend or family member (see F), but it is still important that you establish some sort of bond, whether it’s relational or professional so that you feel…
C – Comfortable
Are you comfortable opening up to your support system? It’s crucial that you feel able to go to them to ask for help when you need it. It can be difficult to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and let someone know that we’re struggling, so make sure you have people on your team who you comfortable to open up to.
D – Discerning
It’s crucial that members of your team are discerning – do they show good judgment? Are they encouraging you to do the best thing for you, or for themselves? Are they accidentally making things worse in a crisis (see H)?
E – Expectations
Expectations are incredibly important when establishing your support system. What are your expectations for them? Are they able to fulfil those expectations on a consistent basis? Or, do your expectations need to be managed? Make sure it’s clear from the outset.
F – Family/friends
Family and friends are the logical choices for support system members, and it’s great if you’ve got that option, but just because someone is a family member or friend, doesn’t necessarily mean they would be a good member of your team. Consider the rest of these points (particularly L), and read my previous post for options of support other than family and friends.
G – Gratitude
You don’t need to feel indebted to people who support you with your mental health, but gratitude is important. Let your support system know that you appreciate them supporting you.
H – Helpful
It might sound obvious, but it’s important that the people in your support system are helpful. What I mean by this is do they actually do what you need them to do? If you’ve asked them to talk to you on the phone, do they insist on coming over even though that won’t be helpful to you? Or maybe worse, do they simply tell you to “cheer up” or “calm down”? This links back to Expectations. Make sure your expectations are clear, along with your boundaries. If they’re actually more unhelpful than helpful, they might not be an appropriate member of your team.
I – Intuition
Although our support system members can’t be expected to be mind-readers (see X), it is helpful if they have some level of intuition and can pick up on subtle hints that you’re not doing so well, for example, if you start to isolate yourself or if you’re displaying signs of feeling low.
J – Jokes
Being part of a support system doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Sometimes, a really effective way of supporting someone when they’re feeling low is to tell a joke or a funny story.
K – Kindness
Another seemingly obvious one, but one to consider carefully. The people in your support system should show you kindness and compassion. If not, they’re not going to be helpful.
L – Love vs. Support
This one is linked to family and friends. You will doubtless have people in your life who love you, but can they support you? There’s a difference between love and the kind of support that is needed in a mental health crisis. Sometimes, love can even cloud the judgment of someone who is trying to support (see S) you, and they can end up doing more harm than good. Think carefully about who you have in your support system – just because they love you, doesn’t mean they have the skills to support you in a crisis.
M – Mental health professionals
If you are under a mental health team, you may have access to a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a support worker, or other mental health professionals. These professionals are all part of your support system and they’re there to help you, so make use of them.
N – Non-judgmental
It’s important that members of your support system are non-judgmental, otherwise, you may not feel able to come to them to ask for help. The last thing we need when we’re feeling low or are in a crisis is that we’re being judged.
O – Open-minded
People in your support system should be open-minded and willing to try to understand things from your perspective.
P – Pets
Believe it or not, your pet can be a great part of your support system. I know when I’m feeling low, or even heading into a crisis, nothing calms me quite like sitting and fussing my cats. Their soft purring and cute little faces help to calm my anxiety and lift my mood. Furthermore, if you have a dog, this little pal can help you to get out of the house for a short walk to clear your head.
Q – Quick to respond
In a crisis situation, it’s important that our support system acts quickly. It may be a good idea to know their schedule, so you know which members of your team are available at which times, so you are more likely to get a prompt response if/when you reach out.
R – Reliable
Members of your team should be reliable – if they are not consistent in their support, this may leave you in a mess. Again, this links back to Expectations. Do you need someone to keep their phone on loud at night? Or do you need someone that can physically be with you at short notice? Whatever you need, if it’s been agreed in your Expectations, this person needs to reliably do what they say they’re going to do.
S – Supportive
This one seems stupidly obvious, but are the people in your team actually supportive? Sometimes people can unknowingly sabotage our recovery by infantilising us and trying to do everything for us. A good support system is there when you need them, but will also encourage you to do things for yourself when you can and to use the skills you have in your toolbelt.
T – Time
Another question to ask is, does this person have the time to dedicate to being in your support system? If they are always too busy when you need them, it may be that they’re not a suitable option.
U – Understanding
The people in your support system should be understanding of your situation. They should also understand what you need from them, so again, communication is key here.
V – Validating
Validation of your feelings is an important job for your support system. Sometimes all we need is to feel like we’ve been heard and understood.
W – Well-meaning
Does this person have your best interests at heart?
X – X-ray vision
You can’t expect your support system to have X-ray vision and be able to tell what’s going on inside your head. Communication is really important. If they don’t know what you need, they can’t help you.
Y – Yes
It’s all well and good having a support system, but you also have to be willing to say Yes to the support. It’s common for those of us with mental health issues to reject offers of help for fear of being seen as a burden, but if someone has signed up to be part of your team, they want to help – so let them.
Z – Zealous
Finally, ask yourself if this person is zealous; are they diligent and devoted to helping you? Their life doesn’t have to revolve around you, but they need to be committed to being there as much as you expect them to be (see E), otherwise you may find yourself unsupported in a time of need. If they’re not zealous about supporting you, they may not be a suitable match for your team.
I hope that this list has given you some insight into what makes a good support system. Obviously, you’re not going to find one person who fits every single one of these criteria, which is why it’s important to have a team, rather than just one person.
What does your support system look like? Maybe you’re part of someone else’s support system? Let me know in the comments.