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How do you build a support network?

DEAR CAROLYN: I've recently realized my mental health is not very good and I should probably try to lean on "my support network" if I want to get better. Problem is, a big part of my poor health is that I don't trust people to be there for me. This has been proven (recently!) and it's hard to believe I even have a "support network," let alone one I can actually rely on. Help?


DISTRUSTFUL: I'm sorry you're feeling low.

Please start by getting professional support — call your primary care doc if the idea of finding a therapist feels too daunting right now.

Once you have a place to go in a crisis, then start building a network you can trust.

Here's the secret, though, about people being "there for me":

Some will be, some won't; some outer-ring friends will shock you with their attentiveness and inner-ring ones with their negligence; sometimes everyone answers your distress call and sometimes no one does. So the whole "rely on" concept is really misleading.

What you're actually counting on is your own resourcefulness. It's your own ability to find ways to get through tough times.

That can mean leaning on friends, yes, and trusting them sometimes. But that's just one piece of the larger mechanism of trusting yourself, which includes your own ability to:

— Recognize when you're in trouble.

— Distinguish between being just-the-usual down and needing help.

— Identify what is helpful.

— Locate that help.

I'll use my own moody self as an example. If I'm down, I might want to talk to someone. So, I'll contact the person whose "medicine" seems right for what I'm feeling.

And when that person isn't available or effective, I go to alternatives more under my control: the dogs, a walk, a cry, yoga, escapist TV, a book, a charitable act, an annoying chore (accomplishment as analgesic).

You can scrape together your own version of this, yes? The person or four to call, the list of simple, feel-better steps? Because that's your network, and the person you're trusting, always, is you.

Reader suggestions:

— Also make sure you're asking for the help you need. If, during a busy week, a friend asks if I can get coffee, I may say no because I have too much going on and it seems like a casual invite. That friend may think I am not there for her. BUT, if that friend said she was having a hard time, I would know to rework my priorities to support her. Some people may still drop the ball, but many more will step up.

— I go to a kind of a support group that meets on a regular basis, and that stability helps me deal with having other people in my life there for me sometimes and not at others. Plus, there's the added benefit of being both the helper and help-ee.

— Leaning solely on friends to solve problems that require professional care will cost you some friendships unnecessarily. Remember, friends may be dealing with their own problems. If you're tempted to romanticize the test, that a crisis will show you who's true-blue and will read your tone of voice exactly, max out their credit card and ride to rescue you on the opposite coast at 3 a.m., please don't.

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