What do you envision your future to look like? Some people have strict five-year plans, while others prefer to play things day-by-day. I only have a few definite plans for the future: see the world, get my parents a retirement, and inspire a short-lived TV show based on exaggerated details about my life. Most importantly, however, in no future scenario do I ever intend for myself or my friends to ever go without the support we need.
This column is about mental health — and something that is beneficial, if not necessary, for your mental health is a support network: ties to a set of people in which you all take responsibility for monitoring each other’s well-being and offering unconditional support.
Support networks are hard to come by in a time like this. If you’re a freshman, friends you knew from high school are likely more distant than they’ve ever been, and isolation isn’t making forming new friendships easy. I acknowledge this makes me a hypocrite, but, personally, I can’t be bothered investing the time and energy to get to know people I see only for a few hours each week. Still, I know I should change this, and that I have a lot to gain by doing so: The group of people with whom you’re comfortable speaking about your problems can never be too large, and it’s the relationships with these kinds of people that are well worth spending your limited time and energy developing.
But why even have support networks? There are some very flawed beliefs about support, beliefs rooted in the “toughen-up” mentality purporting that you have the most to gain when you head at something on your own, bite your tongue through hardship, and keep on going. This mentality is well-meaning, attempting to get people (especially the youth) to embrace difficulties rather than evade responsibility. In New Zealand — my home, where the lifestyle of the model citizen is solitary, tough farm work in the middle of nowhere — being a man involves talking about your problems as little as possible. But frankly, this idea of self-support has the opposite of its intended effect.
I reject this idea that you shouldn’t rely on other people; that you should be independent and try to deal with your issues yourself. When people are friends with you, they’re signing up for you to be able to rely on them, and for them to be able to rely on you.
Tell people you trust that you have their back, and chances are, they’ll have yours. Do what it takes to get yourself a safety net. You may have gotten this far using only your own resilience, but I've had enough breakdowns and burn-outs by now to know that any sense of self-sufficiency is ephemeral. Ultimately, resilience lies in relationships.
Life also only gets messier, and the sooner you can surround yourself with people who are willing to go the extra mile for you, to speak with you late at night, to shoot the shit with you, the better. A while ago my best mate reached out to me when he noticed something was wrong. Instead of doing something reckless, I spent the rest of the day with him eating extra-spicy fried chicken and talking things out. If any one moment illustrated to me the value of having people to support you, it was then.
I know what it’s like to have support, but I also know what it’s like to not. At times in the past, I’ve kept people out of the loop and shut myself out from whatever semblance of a support-network I had available to me at the time. I’m sure that if I had involved people I care about in those moments, I would have come out of the trenches much better, and perhaps even avoided getting that low in the first place. An agreement between a few friends to regularly check in on each other, to send a message from time to time asking how things are, is a great option when you’re unable to meet in person — and I believe that something as simple as that could have allowed me to avoid the situation I was in.
Knowing how crucial you are to the mental health of others can nonetheless be daunting. This might keep you from letting other people take this responsibility on for you, or be why you feel scared of taking on this responsibility yourself for someone else. But in a time where, whether you’re aware of it or not, your support network has taken a big hit due to isolation, expanding it by taking on this responsibility is necessary.
There is also the fear of being stood up. You won’t know for certain how people will act in a time of need until you find out. It’s a risk, a trust fall, but the chance of someone catching you is much larger than the chance of falling on your ass. If getting closer to other students, to people you see on a regular basis, means stepping out of your comfort zone or using up some of your time and energy, I think creating a support network around yourself — and in the process, adding to others’ too — is a good reason to do so.
James M. Heffernan '24's column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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