Wellbeing advice often tells us to seek support, with someone we trust, a professional, our friends and family. We need support networks (communities of people we can rely on in times of need) to manage the daily struggle that life can be, to share our achievements and joys with and lean on when things get really tough. Without them, our ability to cope is hindered. But are friends and family the right kind of support when it comes to our mental health?
Our personal support networks will look different for everyone, you might rely on your partner mostly and have others in place for the bigger challenges, you might have different people for different challenges, it might be mostly family. But when it comes to challenges with our mental health, are our friends and family enough?
We’ve made huge strides to break down stigma around mental health, we’re more accepting of how common it is, how it can impact our ability to function, and how important it is to speak out and ask for help when we’re struggling. We’re encouraging people to speak about their challenges, feelings, experiences to seek support, reassurance, advice possibly, but who are we encouraging people to go to?
Friends are like accessible ‘therapy’
Talking to the people we know, who know and want to support us, has huge benefits. We feel less alone in our issues, we feel cared for and loved, we share pain and joy, maybe laugh and cry together. It might not change the situation but it can help us feel ok with the challenge and comforted in not dealing with it alone, short term at least.
We can feel better after sharing problems with our people, it can feel warm and fluffy, it can feel empowering and brave.
Friends are like accessible ‘therapy’, free of charge, easy to find, easy to meet up with. But we all have our own problems going on, we all have stress and anxieties of our own. They’re not trained professionals, available to listen to you and your problems solely, and help you find the solutions. Sometimes, they might be exactly the right person - someone to whinge about our families too, vent about work stress, complain about the constant pile of dishes or laundry that needs doing.
But how often have you left a conversation feeling misunderstood or like you’ve been told what to do, like it’s so obvious you should’ve tried sooner?
We want to help our friends and family in times of need, so we often try to offer advice, stuff that worked for us, ideas that helped us through a difficult time. But how often have you left a conversation feeling misunderstood or like you’ve been told what to do, like it’s so obvious you should’ve tried sooner? This is unsolicited advice, given with the best of intentions and kindness, falling onto ears that don’t want it, don’t need advice but actually needed listening too.
When it comes to our mental wellbeing our friends are not always the right people to be relying on. We build our own tool kits for coping with daily life, based on our experiences of what works for us. So relying on this kind of support, personal experiences different to our own, has the potential to not only worsen how we feel in the moment but our mental health can deteriorate and cause further, more severe issues.
Why do we need to seek professional support too?
It’s important to look into professional support if you’re struggling with your mental health. It’s important to talk about it with the people around you, who support you, but we cannot rely on them solely to help us or ‘fix’ our problems for us.
Professional help is based on research, theory, practice and listening to the person’s experience. Listening is a key skill for therapists that our friends, and ourselves, don’t always have - no judgement intended. It’s more than nodding along, occasionally asking a question or giving an anecdote of common ground - “when I was really stressed at work, x happened to me too” - that can feel far from common. Therapists use 'active listening', paying attention to what’s being said rather than what to say next. Hearing the individual’s perspective, not their version of experiences. It takes training and practice to master this skill, and know when to add to the conversation and when to allow the person to keep speaking.
As well as listening, therapists guide individuals to their own solutions rather than give advice or suggestions to 'fix' issues. That guidance might involve some suggestions, but based on theory and research compared to personal experience and successes. They work alongside you through trial and error, and help to break down barriers we put in place that prevent us from making changes - that we often don’t even realise are there, or do but don’t know how to break them down.
But the best part about therapy? It’s a safe space to talk about how you are, what’s going on for you, what’s on your mind, worries, woes and successes. Almost a place to be your most selfish without repercussions - selfishness being a good thing, sometimes we need to be a bit selfish to look after ourselves. And it’s with someone who’s not making any judgements, isn’t going to be offended by what we say - where friends or family might. There’s a sense of freedom in being able to say exactly how you feel, and it’s a space that many of us are missing in our wellbeing toolkits. Life is tough sometimes, and it can feel unmanageable without the right tools in place, seeking professional support might be the one you’ve been missing.
Lastly, therapists have their own therapists. It’s kind of the rules, we’re listening to people’s problems daily, we need space to vent our own. Therapy is not a sign of weakness, it's acknowledging the importance of your mental wellbeing and taking care to nurture it. It’s for everyone, from severe mental health problems to managing the trivial but oh so stressful daily struggles of simply being human.
The power of the professional: it can still be challenging to access professional support, NHS while free of charge is underfunded and understaffed, private options are available but require the funds to pay for it which isn’t always possible for everyone. Discuss your options with a GP, find out what therapeutic support is available in your community, ask friends and family if they know anyone or can help you out.
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