Thursday, 2nd February was Time to Talk Day 2023, a day which encourages friends, families, communities, and workplaces to come together to talk about mental health, listen and change lives.
Research shows time and again how emotional support, open conversations and reaching out to family, friends and colleagues is an important protective factor for dealing with life’s difficulties and providing much needed support in challenging times. It can also reduce stigma, challenge negative assumptions and help to create supportive workplace cultures.
Conversations truly have the power to change lives, which is why we plan to extend the conversation throughout the month of February. Sponsored by WellBeing World, each of our Wellbeing Wednesday articles will explore different aspects of how conversation can enhance mental health, foster cultures of psychological safety, kindness and social wellbeing in the workplace, remove the stigmas around financial wellbeing, men’s health, women’s health, and so much more.
So where to start.
Experts say that almost everyone benefits from a degree of social and emotional support, and they frequently encourage people to reach out to friends, family and colleagues. It doesn’t need to be a large network, just a few people you know you can turn to in need. Knowing they are there and that they care, improves one’s self-esteem and sense of autonomy. It helps us to focus on what we need to do to achieve our goals and deal with the issues we face. There is also a proven link between healthy social relationships and different aspects of health, wellness and recovery.
Social relationships help people stay motivated when trying to achieve their goals, and talking with others who are going through a similar experience can be a source of support and encouragement to help reinforce healthy habits. Social support is also consistently associated with positive outcomes for students, in terms of wellbeing and academic achievement, offering a way to deal with stressors associated with the challenge of transitioning to university, settling into a new environment and routine, along with studying demands and exams.
Sadly, we also see the converse of this, and poor social support has been shown to be linked to depression, loneliness, increased risk of heart disease, and suicide.
A 2022 study found that social support bolsters resilience in stressful situations. High levels of loneliness are associated with physical health symptoms, small social networks and low-quality social relationships.
And, although work is ongoing, initial findings of a new research study conducted by the University of Michigan has shown that reaching out to a friend or relative going through a stressful time could help reduce their risk of depression, particularly if their genetic make-up means they are more vulnerable to the condition.
Senior author Dr Srijan Sen, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the university, said: “Further understanding of the different genetic profiles associated with sensitivity to loss of social support, insufficient sleep, excessive work stress and other risk factors could help us develop personalised guidance for depression prevention. In the meantime, these findings reaffirm how important social connections, social support and individual sensitivity to the social environment are as factors in wellbeing and preventing depression.”
Social support can also be a natural way to manage stress in the workplace. It can bolster your mood, sharpen cognitive functioning, and improve levels of motivation. Not just for emergency situations, a supportive team at work can help everyone to be more resilient and maintain one’s overall mental health. It can also make you feel better understood and offer new perspectives for problem-solving. It can add meaning to one’s life and even increase lifespan.
A problem shared really is a problem halved and this has been proven in research over the years.
What can we do?
Remember, friendship is a two-way street, so we should all try to be there for our friends and colleagues when they need support. We can’t make them open up to us, but we can try. Ask them if they are OK, and if there is anything you can do to help them.
I recall a particularly supportive work environment where we introduced our own code of conduct. One of the ten terms of the code to which everyone had subscribed was ‘Never abandon a team mate in need’. Even if we couldn’t directly help a colleague working on a tight deadline, we would always ask how can we help – even if it was only to make them a cup of tea. Such a simple thing, yet they knew we were there for them.
We would also always show appreciation, even and most especially, for the small things. You don’t have to wait for birthdays and special occasions to say thank you.
Be a good listener. You don’t have to solve their problems or indeed make their problems your own, but active listening can show empathy and much needed support to someone at a time of need. You may just be the catalyst that changes their life in a good way.
And if you need help, never be afraid to ask.
Time to Talk Day was launched in 2014 by Time to Change, a campaign to end mental health stigma and discrimination, which was run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Now the UK’s biggest mental health conversation is run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness in England, the Scottish Association for Mental Health and See Me in Scotland, Inspire and Change Your Mind in Northern Ireland, and Time to Change Wales, in partnership with Co-op.