Whether your circle of friends grows every weekend or has shrunk down to a handful trusted confidantes, it is undeniable that we are all social creatures who seek the comfort and support of others from time to time.
But as with many aspects of life, from diet to exercise, we don't always pay enough attention to what we know will help our wellbeing – and relationships are no different. The neglect our social lives suffer is highlighted by new research released by the Mental Health Foundation to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. It shows that more people regard maintaining healthy relationships as the most important factor to their wellbeing than those who cited healthily, exercising or avoiding negative habits including smoking combined.
Nevertheless, 46 per cent of the 2,000 adults in the UK who took part in the survey also admitted that they regret not investing more time in their relationships – a figure which hits 50 per cent among men. And despite the fact that most people claim to value their social lives above their physical health, only 11 per cent of people surveyed made it the focus of their New Year’s resolutions.
In response to the findings, the Mental Health Foundation is encouraging people to make a relationship resolution. Those who sign up on their website will receive a text on New Year’s Eve to check their progress, and prompt them to continue their efforts into 2017. “What we hear time and again from our supporters is how important friends and family are on the road to recovery from severe mental illness,” says Nia Charpentier, a spokeswoman from the charity Rethink Mental Illness.
“Having people in your life who are understanding and supportive, be they a full-time carer or just someone to share a cup of tea and a chat with, can make a big difference,” she says, adding that peer support groups are also a vital tool for many people.
As the taboos surrounding mental health have been gradually stripped away in recent years, the physical and mental impact of loneliness was thrust into the public consciousness by John Lewis‘s 2015 Man on the Moon Christmas advert, which depicted a young girl attempting to contact an elderly man enduring a solitary existence in space.
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, social interaction can cut the risk of mortality and developing certain diseases, and help individuals to recover more quickly from illness. However, socialising can be a daunting prospect for those struggling with their mental health. But it is important that people do not become withdrawn, explains Stephen Buckley, head of information at the charity Mind.
“Our network of 140 local Minds across England and Wales provide a range of services, many of which centre around enabling social participation, such as befriending. For people who feel less comfortable talking face-to-face, online peer support networks can also be incredibly helpful,” he adds, highlighting Mind’s online community Elefriends which offers a space for people to discuss their problems with others facing similar issues.
Luke Tyburski, an endurance adventurer, from London, says that he gained the strength to deal with and speak openly about his struggle with depression thanks to his friends and family.
The 33-year-old argues that social media can be a source of insecurities, as we watch seemingly perfect lives unfold online. But the reality can be starkly different, he says. “As an endurance adventurer, my life online, and in the flesh, may look and sound amazingly perfect to many. But after suffering in silence for nearly a decade, it’s only been over the past 12 months that I have felt the courage and strength to speak openly about the darker side of my life, and the battle I constantly have with depression.”
“One particular friendship has been quite unique, and helped me not only get through some difficult times, but has also encouraged me to enjoy life as well. Darrell and I have been mates for years now, he is someone who I’ve spent plenty of time laughing, joking, and chatting with.
“Darrell was simply there for me, not 24/7, or everyday even, but I knew that if I did need him, I could call to just chat about life, laugh at our own jokes, or enjoy a coffee together in each other’s presence.”
But while relationships can be a source of strength, they can also be extremely damaging if a person is manipulated and made to feel trapped. “Healthy relationships are extremely important for one's well-being both physically and emotionally,“ says Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in the suburban London area of Roehampton. “Such relationships help validate one’s sense of self, self-esteem and self-confidence.”
“In my opinion, the commonest way in which a person's mental health can be damaged by a relationship is by intimidation, bullying and coercion,” she says. Such pressures can lead to physical disorders as extreme as heart disease, and trigger psychological disorders including depression and addiction.
Dr Bijlani adds: “In many cases exposure to such behaviour can lead to chronic problems in trusting others and forming healthier relationships in the future. It is often the case that the closer the bond, the worse the damage, she says.
Those considering how to stretch out a helping hand to a loved one they believe may be in trouble should act carefully, says Bridie Collins, director of relationship support services at Marriage Care. Withdrawal from others or an unwillingness to talk can signal a problem, she says. “Being open and prepared to listen without criticism or giving advice is sometimes all a family member needs to do to support someone who seems troubled.”
While extreme cases of relationship breakdown need careful professional intervention, experts suggest that relationships that have eroded with time or neglect can be revived relatively simply. Peter Saddington, a counsellor for relationship advice service Relate, believes that we should learn such techniques at school.
“We don’t necessarily get taught about relationships and how to communicate and that needs to change because it is so vital to our wellbeing and everything we do. The quality of our relationships isn’t just down to fate. There are practical things that we can do that make a difference to our relationships with friends, partners, family, colleagues or neighbours and in turn benefit our wellbeing.”
Saddington suggests that simply saying hello to neighbours can heighten a sense of belonging, while banning technological devices from the home for an evening a week can allow partners to enjoy quality time together. “Is there a colleague who you haven’t got to know yet? Make an effort to chat to them each day and make them feel welcome. Call your parents once a week to see how they’re doing rather than waiting for them to call you,” says Saddington.
He adds: “We can sometimes forget how much work a relationship needs. It takes effort to maintain and is easy to take for granted but ultimately the more you invest in relationships the happier you are likely to be.”
Tyburski believes that it is his relationships that will give him strength as he continues to deal with depression. “My journey is far from over, but I would urge anyone who is suffering in silence to simply regularly meet up and chat with a close friend, or another human being, as having a connection with someone, from my experience, can go along way to helping anyone feel supported.
“It doesn’t matter what it’s about, but just start a conversation with a person you have a relationship with, and you may begin to smile on the inside, as well as the outside.”
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