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How to provide social support in times of need

When things get tough, a helping hand, a supportive ear, or a shoulder to cry on can be just what we need. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide to providing social support in times of need.
Dom Murray
2020-10-08

Whether you’re struggling to find your keys, need a second pair of eyes on a piece of writing, or you’re searching for ‘how to’ videos on YouTube, we all need a little support sometimes. Mental health is no different. There’s nothing worse than struggling alone, so when things get tough, a helping hand, a supportive ear, or a shoulder to cry on can be just what we need. This is why it’s so important to reach out and offer support to friends, loved ones, or colleagues who may be going through a difficult time. 

However, this can be easier said than done. It’s often difficult to identify who actually needs support, and even more challenging to figure out how to offer support in a constructive, non-judgmental way. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide to providing social support in times of need. We cover the importance of a strong support network, how to identify the signs, practical ways to offer support, and how to care for your own mental wellbeing in the process. 

Before we get started, it’s important to note that supporting others should not come at the expense of your own wellbeing. It’s essential to strike a balance between being supportive, and not overloading yourself. This may mean not biting off more than you can chew when another, more qualified person may be able to offer support, ensuring you don’t dedicate so much time to others that you leave none for yourself, and ensuring that any situations where you are offering support are not mentally, physically, or emotionally triggering. 

For more tips on striking this balance, be sure to check out our blog post about Developing your mental health self care plan

What is a social support network (and why is it important)? 

Put simply, a social support network is a group of people who you can turn to for support in times of need — particularly if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. This network may include family, friends, colleagues, or even online communities. 

Building your social support network can be as simple as identifying the people in your life who you feel comfortable sharing important thoughts and feelings with. 

It is also important to note that you shouldn’t feel pressured to include someone in your support network if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with them — no matter how ‘close’ you are in other areas of life. If someone doesn’t quite understand what you are going through, or offers unnecessary judgment, turning to them for support can be counterproductive.

According to Very Well, some of the key benefits of social support include increased motivation, healthier choices, and reduced stress. They add, “Psychologists and other mental health professionals often talk about the importance of having a strong social support network. When trying to reach our goals or deal with a crisis, experts frequently implore people to lean on their friends and family for support. Research has also demonstrated the link between social relationships and many different aspects of health and wellness.”

Due to COVID-19, offering social support in person is more difficult than usual, leading many to seek online alternatives. A few helpful resources for online social support include Beyond Blue’s forum, the Australian Government’s Head to Health website, as well as Facebook communities such as Blokes vs Black Dog

Identifying the signs 

In order to offer social support, it is important to be able to recognise common warning signs.

The number one rule is simple: a change is worth a check in. In essence, if you notice a change in a friend or loved one’s behaviour — particularly if they start behaving more erratically — it’s worth checking in. It rarely hurts to ask “are you okay?”. Ideally, the change may have a simple explanation, but it’s usually worth asking, just in case. 

Additionally, the American Psychiatric Association lists a number of common signs that someone may be experiencing mental health issues, including: 

  • Lack of sleep
  • Appetite changes
  • Social withdrawal
  • Memory or concentration issues
  • Apathy
  • Nervousness
  • Unusual behaviour
  • Drop in functioning at work, school, or socially

Beyond Blue also offers several common warning signs, such as: 

  • Not going out anymore
  • Not getting things done at work/school
  • Withdrawing from close family and friends
  • Relying on alcohol and sedatives
  • Not doing usual enjoyable activities
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Frustration
  • Lack of confidence
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Avoidance of situations that result in anxiety

If you’re worried a friend or loved one is exhibiting some of these signs, a good first step before reaching out can be completing this checklist. While the K10 checklist should not be substituted for a professional diagnosis, it is a quick and confidential way to attain further insight, and serves as a good guideline. 

Finally, it’s important to remember everyone will exhibit different signs in different ways, so the above lists are by no means comprehensive. Instead, remember the number one rule: a change is worth a check in. 

Ways to provide support 

According to Health Behaviour and Health Education, there are four types of social support: 

  1. Emotional
  2. Instrumental
  3. Informational
  4. Appraisal 

Emotional support is defined as “expressions of empathy, love, trust, and caring”. An example of this type of support may be a friend offering a kind, empathetic ear during a difficult time. 

Instrumental support means offering “tangible aid and service”. An example of this type of support may be parents offering to assist with childcare while you are recovering from a broken leg. 

Informational support includes offering “advice, suggestions, and information”. An example of this type of support may be a friend offering information and advice about a similar situation they experienced recently. 

Finally, Appraisal support is “information that is useful for self-evaluation“. An example of this type of support may be reminding a friend of all their positive qualities when they are feeling particularly down, to help them realise they are capable of overcoming a stressful situation. 

Obviously, different types of support are appropriate in different situations, so it is important to take individual context into consideration when reaching out to offer support. Generally, you will know the person you are offering support to well enough to ascertain what will best suit their needs in that moment. 

It may also help to make a support plan in advance, to ensure you don’t become overwhelmed while offering support, and are able to stay calm in the moment.

Above all else, lending a kind, compassionate, and non-judgmental ear to ensure a loved one’s problems don’t remain bottled up can often be all the support someone needs. For more information on starting these important conversations, check out our article There’s more to say after R U OK?: Keeping the conversation going

Maintaining your own mental health while providing support

As mentioned, supporting others while maintaining your own mental health can be a delicate balancing act. To help you achieve this balance, Go1 has a number of useful resources. 

For starters, you can check out our article What’s your stress score?, as well as Stress management: how to use meditation to manage stress.

We’re also offering a number of free courses from providers such as Beyond Blue and Blisspot throughout October to support World Mental Health Day on October 10th. To access your free courses, simply visit mentalhealthmonth.mygo1.com and sign up! 

Lastly, for a full list of upcoming events and resources to support mental health awareness, you can go to Introducing Go1’s ‘Learning with Purpose’ initiative for mental health awareness

As always, please remember, if you are experiencing significant distress, you can reach out to Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 for immediate support. If you, or anyone you know, is feeling suicidal you can also call the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 for immediate support.

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