I’ve been blogging about mental health for a while now, but I’ve not yet talked about finding or creating your own support network. And yet, this is probably one of the most crucial and valuable things you need to get through it. I’ve talked a bit about helping colleagues, but this time I’d like to refer to your “inner circle”, or those closest to you.
Once again inspired by the Sanctus podcast on mental health, I listened to them speak about the importance of relationships for mental health, and couldn’t believe I had never addressed it beforehand.
When you’re experiencing mental health issues, or live with a mental health condition, it’s really important to feel understood and safe. The last thing you need is for people to be insensitive or tell you to “snap out of it”. Quite the opposite, you need people who will understand you, show empathy, and perhaps even just be silent but let you know they’re there if you need them.
The power of feeling understood
As I was going through my most difficult time at work, I will never forget the first time I felt listened to and understood. I had been feeling overworked and overwhelmed for months, and was pretty desperate by this point: I wasn’t sure what to do or how I would get out of this hell. As I mentioned in my video, I had tried to ask for help, but what with agency accepting overworked as a standard, and being asked to make a calculation of my over time, needless to say I didn’t feel like anyone cared or understood how difficult my situation was.
Then I was appointed a new manager. I was a bit irritated to have yet another stranger thrown at me, but when I told them about the difficulties I had been experiencing, for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, someone was listening to me. Genuinely giving me their attention, hearing what I was saying and seeing the pain below the surface. And wow was that powerful!
Feeling listened to and understood created a sense of trust in this person, and as mentioned in another blog post, trust at work is extremely important for good mental health. Trusting this person made me able to talk about my anxiety which was something quite scary for me to do at the time, considering I myself still had a lot of stigma against mental health at work and was worried about the impact it would have on my career.
That person then told me that if I ever needed a mental health day I should take it – no questions asked. Just take a day for myself, stay home, work from home if I preferred, or just do nothing. Once again, that was extremely powerful! No one had ever allowed me or encouraged me to take care of my mental health.
Looking back, I truly believe that meeting this person at that specific point in time really helped me on my road to recovery. Starting to accept what I had experienced, feeling more comfortable talking about it, and most importantly, learning to prioritize my mental health. Experiencing those moments of understanding made me want to create that safe space for others. It motivated me to start blogging on the topic and talking about it more openly, even though it was a scary thought.
How mental health affects relationships
During that time I was also in a relationship, and I really regret allowing my mental health to have such an impact on it. I would bring my work home every day, it invaded our household and our lives. Beside the fact that I was mentally and physically exhausted, I guess it took up a good 80% of our conversations.
While I never want to do that again, I’m also extremely grateful for his unwavering support. He sat there and listened to me day in day out, he offered advice, sometimes he even got angry with me about what I was going through. It certainly wasn’t the healthiest way to deal with it but it was what I needed at the time. Just having the support, knowing he was there and being able to confide in someone was important.
I have two main takeaways when it comes to mental health and relationships
- Be really conscious of how your mental health impacts on your relationship. How is it affecting it? At the end of the day, you get to decide whether it’s going to have a positive or negative impact, and how you manage it.
- Your partner is an incredible source of support for you, and it’s important to acknowledge and cherish that. Sometimes they might be the only person you want to see… But it also requires a lot of vulnerability to be at your worst around the person you love. It requires a lot of strength on their behalf to support you, and it’s important to acknowledge that.
Friendship and mental health
Of course friends also play a very important role in supporting your mental health. Another reason that prompted me to start blogging and talking about mental health is because many friends of mine were sharing similar experiences they were having. Being overworked, being bullied or disrespected, not feeling valued, being denied opportunities… It was reassuring (though alarming) to know I wasn’t the only one, and helped me feel a bit more sane.
At the same time, knowing which of my friends have experienced mental health issues makes it easier to talk to them first as I know they will understand what I am going through. I am less afraid of judgment, I am not necessarily looking for advice but just for support.
Over time as a friend, I see my role as:
- Being a good listener
- Asking questions that help people think deeper about their situation and interrogate reality
- Encourage people to think about their mental health as it relates to work
- Create a safe space where people feel able to talk about mental health issues they are experiencing
- Be an advocate for good mental health and by talking about it, encourage others to do the same
Why we need to be surrounded by the right people
As the Sanctus podcast reminded me, our support network is everything. Of course there is professional help, medication, online resources and much more. But at the end of the day, one of our most basic human desires is to be accepted and to belong. That’s why it’s so important that our friends, partners, and families accept us when we’re experiencing issues (mental health or other) and are there to support us.
Likewise, it’s important for us to know we can depend on those people to confide in, or turn to in a time of need. While professional help (such as a psychologist) makes a difference and sometimes the anonymity is what we need, there’s also something comforting and reassuring about the people who know you well. Those who’ve been by your side for a long time, know your story and know your likes and dislikes. Those people also keep you real!
So make sure you identify the people who understand you, and keep them close. Take them on your mental health journey!