Group of students with arms around each other

I began feeling pretty out of it when I was 18. I had just started school after moving away from a tight-knit friend group in my hometown and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I’d come back from class, stuff my face with junk while binge-watching Netflix, and consciously try to shut out the world. It felt like I was slogging through mud just trying to get through each day. Despite how I was feeling, when family and friends would call to ask how I was doing, I always responded with, “Everything’s great!”

I ignored how lost and empty I felt, and the problem continued to grow.

What helped me get out of my funk

One day, I was sitting in a coffee shop, and a woman wearing a bright purple sweater sat down next to me. She saw that I was stressed (was it that obvious?), told me her name was Marianne, and gently asked me to share my thoughts with her. I was a little hesitant at first. What did she want?

“All I want to do is listen,” she said, which quickly put me at ease. I opened up and told her how I’d been feeling. She sat and listened to me without judgment, and it showed me the impact that one person who’s willing to listen can have—even when it’s a total stranger.

After talking to Marianne, I wondered why talking—and feeling heard—helped so much. This got me thinking about how speaking to someone about our problems might just be one of the keys to overcoming our struggles. Then I looked at the research and found a ton of evidence to back this idea up—and that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

—Asher Lipsitz, writer and co-founder of Recline, an online service offering peer counselling and support

Why social support matters

Having solid social support means having people you can come to when you need to talk—whether it’s about roommate drama, a bad grade, feeling down after a breakup, or something else. Your support network can include anyone from friends to family to mental health practitioners (and, occasionally, even strangers). “Social support is all about helping you not feel alone, as well as feel valued and important to someone else,” says Dr. David Ness, Associate Professor and Director of the Student Counselling Centre at the University of Manitoba.

Having real-life, in-person social support has a profound impact on us—it actually helps us live longer. A 2010 review of 148 studies found that those with strong social relationships had a 50 percent higher chance of living longer than those with weak social ties (PloS Medicine).

“My instinct when I’m wrestling with something is to talk it out with someone else. I process it better that way,” says Katherine P., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Ottawa in Ontario.

According to the MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, social support can be classified into two categories: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental support is actionable help others can provide—for example, helping you study, giving you a ride, or letting you sleep on their couch. Emotional support is when you feel loved, cared for, and valuable.

Both kinds of support are beneficial for students. “The amount of social connection a person needs to feel fulfilled may vary across individuals, but in general, it’s important that we feel listened to and validated,” says Jacqueline Nesi, Technology and Social Connection Researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Peer Relations Lab. “It’s also important to have reciprocal relationships that we can turn to when we need emotional or instrumental support.”

“We thrive and grow in connection with others—so the quality of relationships in our social support network, and our ability to support ourselves and others in a healthy way, also matters,” says Dr. Mirjam Knapik, Registered Psychologist, Counsellor, and Associate Professor at Mount Royal University in Alberta.

Student perspective: How to give and receive social support

“Just saying, ‘I’m having a hard time with a situation’ can open a line of communication to solutions you wouldn’t have come up with on your own. [We can support others by] asking how our classmates, family, or coworkers are, and being observant to their body language. For example, saying, ‘I noticed X…if you need to talk, let me know.’ Extend that olive branch and build trust and don’t break that trust.”
—Sarah Y., second-year graduate student, Concordia University, Oregon

Over the years, Canadians as a whole have become more socially isolated. More than 65 percent said they felt “very lonely” in the past year—with about 30 percent feeling “very lonely” within the last two weeks, according to a 2016 study by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services of more than 43,000 Canadian university students.

“We can be with a dozen people and feel very alone, or be on our own and feel blissful solitude,” says Dr. Jewel Perlin, a psychologist with the Office des professions du Québec at Concordia University. “Loneliness is a feeling that no one enjoys and if it occurs often enough, it can really impact our life satisfaction and mood. We all have a strong biological need to feel a sense of connection with others and when this need is not met, feelings of loneliness are our mind’s and body’s way of telling us something’s wrong.”

Are we trading time with friends in person for time online?

In the age of online “friends” and followers, students are spending less time than ever face-to-face with their peers, according to recent national surveys of American college freshmen conducted by UCLA. Here’s what the surveys found:

  • About 40 percent of students said they spend less than five hours a week with friends (back in 1987, that same number of students spent at least 16 hours a week socializing).
  • About 40 percent of students spend more than six hours a week on social media, which increased by about 14 percent since 2014.

We may not be hanging out in person as much, but we’re definitely spending more time online. Nearly 80 percent of English-speaking Canadians use some form of social networking and 60 percent check their social networks more than once a day, according to a survey of 4,000 Canadians in a report from the Media Technology Monitor. In 2011, Canadians spent an average of nearly 45 hours online, according to a 2012 Canada Digital Future in Focus report. “The time it takes to maintain social media connections may be not allowing time for in-person connecting,” says Dr. Ness.

While it might make you feel like you have a lot of connections, the number of online followers or friends you have doesn’t appear to affect resilience against loneliness or depression, according to a 2014 Computers in Human Behavior study. In fact, newsfeeds may separate more than connect us to others. Young adults in the US who use social media the most (in the top 25 percent) are three times as likely to feel lonely and disconnected compared to infrequent users, suggests a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “In today’s world of Facebook and Instagram, having 100 ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ may be something to brag about, but you can still be lonely, because you may not have the true connection you need,” says Dr. Perlin.

The takeaway: Use social media to connect—but then connect outside the interwebs

“Social media can be a great way to meet and interact with people with similar interests—but then work on cultivating a closer friendship,” says Dr. Perlin. “For example, use Facebook as a tool to find people with similar interests—and then do those activities with the people in real time, and don’t rely too heavily on digital connections.”

“Making connections with classmates and student groups can give a sense of belonging. It reduces the stress about a missed class because you can get a friend’s notes, affords a chance to be helpful to others, and can enhance learning when students study together,” says Dr. Knapik.

group of male friends laughing

Here’s what social support does for us, according to research

Before we get to tips on how to build your social support network, let’s go over why it’s so important to have it in the first place.

1. It helps us feel less stressed

There’s a direct link between how supported we feel and how stressed we are. In a 2015 nationwide survey, Americans who felt emotionally supported by friends or family ranked their stress level as a 4.8 out of 10, while those who didn’t feel supported marked their stress level as a 6.3 (American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey). Similarly, students who reported feeling lonely and less connected to those around them had higher levels of perceived stress, and more frequent and severe problems than those who felt embedded in their social networks, according to a study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, 2000.

“When dealing with a stressful situation, people are less likely to report stress-related health problems when they feel like they have support from others,” says Dr. Perlin, referencing another study, published in Psychiatry.

2. It boosts our physical health

Having a strong social network (i.e., not feeling socially isolated) may positively affect how well you sleep, your impulse control, and blood pressure, suggests a 2014 literature review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

Having a top-notch support network can even help your wounds heal faster and strengthen the immune response, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Social support may also help protect against serious illnesses, heart attacks, obesity, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2009 study in Trends of Cognitive Science.

3. It helps protect us from depression and anxiety

The idea that social support is protective against depression and anxiety is well documented in scientific research across numerous studies. This holds true even for those who have been through more challenging life experiences. For example, a 2017 nationwide study of American adults who had experienced difficult or traumatic childhood events found that those who reported having consistent social and emotional support were the least likely to report feeling depressed as adults.

“[University] is such a transformative time when we figure out so much about ourselves—it’s also the time many mental health issues like depression and anxiety first emerge,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. “Support is critical to understanding what’s going on and getting help; it helps us normalize these feelings.”

So how can you get more social support?

Getting more social support doesn’t have to be difficult or scary—today, students have many options for connecting with caring supporters.

group of close female friends

1. Talk to friends and family.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 78 percent of students across Canada said they’re most comfortable going to their friends or family when they need support or advice about something going on in their life. Fifty-five percent of Canadians 15 years and older said they felt close to at least five family members, and 50 percent said they had five or more close friends, according to a 2013 General Social Survey. “Close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, purpose, support, increase our feelings of self-worth, increase our sense of belonging, and provide identity,” says Dr. Perlin.

“If you feel like your friends are trustworthy, open up to them. Otherwise, talking to your parents can really help. I use my mom as my main support system for less sensitive subjects because she provides an unbiased view of the situation.”
—Becca C., fourth-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

2. Fight the urge to isolate yourself.

It may sound like the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling down, but try to make yourself get out and do something with someone (in person may be most beneficial, according to research). “Many struggle to be open about their inner world and their true experiences and therefore don’t have others that really know who they are. I encourage you to take a risk and say how you’re really doing when asked the question: ‘How are you?’” says Dr. Ness.

“Get involved with causes you care about—that’s your tribe,” Dr. Ramsey says. “Find a good group to eat with and explore the local food scene, take a class that teaches self-care like meditation or Tai Chi, or join the choir.”

3. Reach out for professional help.

“For students who often feel alone or feel they have no one to turn to, going to therapy can help you get the support you need,” says Dr. Deborah Epstein, a registered psychotherapist at a private practice in Toronto. Not only will therapy allow you to talk through your feelings, but you’ll also build skills and learn how to solve problems for the future.

top-down view of group of peers working together

“I went to my campus wellness centre and was given an appointment with a counsellor. This changed my life because they set me up with a bunch of free resources and strategies to overcome anxiety. Sometimes it’s best to just say what’s on your mind to a professional. People want to help you and they care for you.”
—Evan R.*, first-year graduate student,
Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

Use this resource to find a therapist near you or visit your campus counselling centre.

Find out what therapy is all about here.

4. Find online support.

If you don’t feel all that comfortable opening up to someone face-to-face, there are a number of online services where you can speak to a trained peer counsellor over the phone or via chat. Try any of the following, all of which provide similar support and are easily accessible:

“Sometimes looking online and seeing other people’s stories of struggle and their results from reaching out can help. It lessens the feelings of loneliness and the feeling that you’re the only one feeling that way.”
—Theresa P., second-year undergraduate, Fleming College-Frost Campus, Ontario

“Support through the internet helps—anonymity sometimes helps us share things that we wouldn’t normally share in person.”
—Tori L., fourth-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

Find more online support groups

5. Volunteer.

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle said, “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” It turns out some sayings do hold up—a 2005 study showed that older people who volunteer just two hours a week live longer and happier lives (Research on Aging). An added bonus? Students who participate in community service are more likely to perform better academically and attain higher levels of education, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Volunteering is a great way to build a network and create new support outlets. “Volunteering involves being with others,” says Dr. Ness. “You could be doing an activity that others find as interesting and valuable as you do, and this could be a common connecting point. A weekly commitment can help you feel like you’re part of a community and expand your social circle. “There are so many ways to connect with others on or off campus, and it’s just a matter of identifying opportunities and working through the experiences and feelings that get in the way of following up on those opportunities,” says Dr. Knapik.

Regardless of where you find support, it’s important to take steps to fulfill your mental wellness needs. We all need and deserve support and an easy place to find it, no matter where that comes from. “Little efforts pay big dividends. It’s tough to make new connections, especially when we don’t feel our best. But be nice. Be interested in others. And relax because it all works out,” says Dr. Ramsey. 

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Article sources

Deborah Epstein, MEd, Registered Psychotherapist, private practice, Toronto, Ontario.

Jacqueline Nesi, MA, Technology and Social Connection Researcher, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Peer Relations Lab.

David Ness, MA, Associate Professor and Director of the Student Counselling Centre, University of Manitoba.

Jewel Perlin, PhD, Psychologist, Office des professions du Québec, Concordia University.

Mirjam Knapik, PhD., R Psych., Counsellor, Associate Professor, Chair of Student Counselling, Mount Royal University, Alberta.

Drew (Christopher) Ramsey, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York.

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