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How supportive is your support system?

Posted Jun 05 2012 3:17pm

Support system – Resource or stressor?

Recovering people, those with mental illnesses, addictions or alcoholism, are reminded of the need for a support system. The evidence seems clear. Those who have a good functioning support system do better. Alcoholics and addicts with a good support system are less likely to pick up, to use or drink again. The mentally ill with an encouraging support system are more likely to stay in treatment and less likely to end up in a psychiatric hospital.

Not all support systems are equal. The quality and the quantity of supports are both important. Who is in your support system? Who should be a member of that group? Making up a written list of the people in your support system before the crisis can help you find resources when the time of need comes.

We speak of support system as if it was a single group, one recovering person – one support system. That is not the best way to build support.  People in recovery need multiple people and need more than one support group. Any single person may not be available when support is needed. Too much reliance on a few support people can burn them out. Not every person in your support system can provide all the support you need.

Here are some categories of the people who might be included in your support system.

Family members can support you.

Family members have been with you for a long time. Even when friends leave you the family remembers you and feels an urge to help you. They will likely feel a desire to help you when no one else will. Support from a parent or sibling can be very helpful for a recovering person, as long as the family is not also part of the problem.

If your family members have a mental illness or an addiction themselves, and often problems run in families, they can’t provide the support you need. If the course of your illness has been long or serious family may be burned out on you. They may be unable to provide the help you need at the time you need it best. Many recovering people have a circle of family members in their support system but that is often not enough.

Family members can also be a huge source of extra stress. One study of veterans with PTSD found that family members where rated as the most supportive but also the most stressful relationships those vets had. The stress caused by family members exceeded the support provided.

While it may be helpful to have family in your support system you will need more.

Spouses, partners and longtime friends

Spouses and partners can be very supportive. People with Schizophrenia who live with a supportive partner were half as likely to end up back in the hospital. If you have a partner they should be a part of your support system, but no partner can carry that full burden. Over time if your partner’s main job is to support you the relationship will suffer. Good relationships need to be maintained with positive interactions. People in recovery do lots of damage to their relationships.

It is hard for a partner to listen to you talk about your symptoms and your urges. They may want to be helpful but being your support system is not a one person job.

Longtime friends can also be great sources of support. Sometimes these old friends feel like family. Just be sure of how much support any one friend is able to provide and keep people who are unhealthy off the list. An alcoholic can’t get much support on their recovery from someone who is still drinking.

People like you

Finding a group of people with problems and interests like yours can be extremely helpful. Addicts relate well to other addicts. Veterans find support groups of other veterans hugely helpful and people with a mental illness should look for a support group of other people with the same sort of problems they have.

Twelve step groups are highly effective because they are made up of people a lot like you. Alcoholics find AA useful because not only does it include a process of change in its “working the steps” it also is helpful at creating a support system of people who like you are struggling with their issues. Your 12 step support system will include not only your sponsor but other members of your group whom you can call when you need to talk. Many recovering people also socialize with members of their recovery group.

Veterans often report that they feel able to talk about things in veterans groups that they can discuss nowhere else. Rape victims say the same thing.

In the mental health field “consumer” groups are becoming more common. So are “dual-diagnosis groups.”  If this is your situation, look for groups like this and participle when you can. If no group exists in your area consider an on line group or starting a local affiliate of one of the national groups.

Sponsors and mentors

Sponsors and mentors can be an especially important part of your support symptom. Most often these will be people from the group like you category above but they develop a special relationship with you as they help by sharing their experiences and hope. They will most likely be focused on one issue, your alcoholism or addiction but every support system needs at least one “old timer” who can help you along in your recovery.

People who are less like you.

People in recovery need to develop outside interests and activities. The longer you are in recovery the more likely you are to become involved in groups that are centered on things other than recovery.

Religious and spiritual groups can be extremely supportive. Include these activities when possible. If you have a hobby or vocation, consider belonging to a group for that interest.

As you move into groups outside the focus of your recovery think about how much is appropriate to share with the members of this group. Some people will be anxious when they learn about your mental illness. You may need to keep the discussion of your recovery for a recovery group while talking with members of your spiritual group about your spiritual issues.


In developing your support system make sure to include professional people. They may not be available as often as friends, family or members of support groups but they can be just what you need when you have a crisis.

Keep an up to date list of Doctors you see and the meds you take with you. Have numbers for counselors and therapist you see or have seen in case you need to get more help.

Make sure you invest the time in creating and strengthening your support system.

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