Mind Matters: The need for social support

Psychologists believe in the power of social support to help people maintain physical and psychological health. Social support includes emotional or practical support. Emotional support might involve listening to a person and showing empathy and caring. Practical support might involve giving a person a ride or useful information.

Who needs social support? Because we humans are social creatures, we all need social support. Some people have almost none, for instance if they are in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Their mental health tends to deteriorate.

Who especially needs social support? Anyone facing a big or persistent stressor. or a big, challenging change.  New mothers, bullied employees, soldiers returning home from combat, and individuals going into the military, off to university, or starting a prison sentence. Also individuals who have a chronic disease or disability, physical or psychiatric. Who else? Migrants and individuals with non-traditional sexual orientations.

Also in the category of especially needing social support: individuals with limited coping ability. These individuals include children, adolescents, immature adults, and autistic-spectrum individuals.

Who provides us with social support? Family members, friends, co-workers, fellow members of our religious and other groups. Some people call Lifeline for social support. In a sense, all my psychotherapy clients come seeking social support.

Sometimes the social support comes from a complete stranger. A few months ago I was walking with a suitcase in a German city trying to find my bed-and-breakfast place. Lost, I saw no taxis. A young man asked me if I needed help. Then he told me that I was going the wrong way and tried to explain the complicated route I needed to take to get to my place. Looking at my doubtful face, he offered to give me a ride there. I accepted. That practical support saved the day.

Several students of the University of New England and I recently started a service to provide social support. Every Saturday for an hour, we sit downtown in Armidale and invite passers-by to sit and talk about whatever they want. The service is so unusual that in the first few weeks people have mostly stopped to ask what we are doing. But some stop and talk about what is on their mind. We think that our just being present sends a message of social support.

When was the last time you provided social support to someone in need?

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.