Unfortunately, peers with mental illness often have tendencies to isolate. Those of us who are debilitated by schizophrenia may simply withdraw from others. People with depression often do not feel up to the rigors of being social. And people with bipolar disorder can sometimes alienate others by the inconsistent behavior they display. Peers with mental illness often avoid others, are avoided by others or both; and they may end up feeling like they are better off alone.
I suffer from schizophrenia. For years, I withdrew from society whenever possible. I was doing what I wanted, but this behavior was causing problems at work and in my personal life. I would often retire to my room, feeling a fleeting sense of relief, only to face boredom and depression moments later. I probably would have continued to isolate to this day had I not been forced to learn to socialize and work at it.
The circumstance that saved me was my placement in a group home. I had no choice but to interact with my housemates and go to groups and activities. At first, I resisted being around others. I felt awkward and wary. But an amazing thing happened. I discovered that most people are kind and nurturing and that I had a lot to gain from interacting with them.
In groups and activities, I encountered the cathartic exchange of sharing observations and viewpoints with others. This nurturing grew in me, and after a few months or so, something healed. I finally caught on that my distrust of others was unfounded and that these people were my friends.
Why Social Support Is Important
This nurturing we receive in our interactions with others can be a very subtle thing. So often in movies and books, the main character stands alone and independent. We often see ourselves that way, thinking we are relatively unmoved by the world.
However, the truth is, the quality of our relationships deeply affects us. What everyone needs to remember, not just those with mental illness, is that:
- We can benefit immensely from cultivating our social life.
- We all need the healing validation of our friends and family.
- Even little incidental interactions can bolster us if they are positive.
To this day, when I am invited to a function or have an opportunity to go out, I often consider avoiding it. Then, I remember that when I am in the middle of these affairs, my feelings of being supported often outweigh my feelings of unease.
How to Start Being Social
Of course, reaching out to others can be challenging if one is in the habit of withdrawing from social contact. One way to get help is to obtain the service of a peer support specialist, a trained professional who understands mental illness. Peer support specialists not only offer social contact, but they can also help you develop your social skills and confidence.
Another avenue to gain social support is to join support groups at your local counseling center or drop-in. Often, you do not have to join the group to participate. You could try one or two sessions to see what it is like and then go from there.
A simpler, yet sometimes more daring, approach is to attempt to be open and communicative toward acquaintances and strangers as you go throughout your daily routine. Say “hi” to your neighbors as you pass them on the sidewalk. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bus stop. Call someone you have not talked to in a while and see how they are doing. Compliment a checkout person on their skills at the register.
I learned the important thing is to make an effort. And by making an effort, and becoming a more social person, it has really improved my quality of life.
Reach out and you may well find others reaching out to you. Not only can you feel better, but you may help others feel better, too.
Daniel K. Seward is currently a media scanner for Itasca County Historical Society in Grand Rapids, MN, and a former peer support specialist. He chairs the Itasca County Mental Health Local Advisory Council and gives talks to agencies that wish to learn about mental illness from a first-person perspective.