The Power of Social Support
"Anything that promotes a sense of isolation often leads
to illness and suffering. Anything that promotes a sense of
love and intimacy, connection and community, is healing."
Dean Ornish, Love and Survival
One of the great lessons I learned in by episode of clinical depression is that one cannot overcome an illness like major depression (or any dark night of the soul experience) by oneself. The weight of the agony is too immense, even for the strongest-willed individual, to bear alone.
Having healthy relationships not only helps to alleviate depression, but also helps to prevent its recurrence. Isolation, on the other hand, makes one more vulnerable to mental and physical illness.
During my illness, two people close to me, a previous therapist and a fellow student of metaphysics, committed suicide in the midst of similar bouts of depression. The cause of their tragedies, I believe, lies in the words of Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who said, "Isolation is the worst possible counsel." My friends had retreated into environments in which they were cut off from family, friends and therapeutic assistance. Fortunately, many people in the Portland area extended themselves to me-the staff and patients at day treatment, my partner Joan, countless friends, and the prayer ministry of LEC. Without them I would not have survived.
It is my belief that the key "ingredient" in my healing was the presence of group energy. I had met and prayed with Mary Morrissey many times; I had prayed with other ministers and members of the prayer team, as well as with my therapist-and still I continued to decline. It wasn't until someone said, "Let's put all of your support people together in one room" that the healing power of prayer became fully activated. The combined prayers and positive thoughts of the group members set up a spiritual energy field through which Divine Love moved and healed my body and soul.
In a recent special aired on National Public Radio, Mike Wallace, William Styron and Art Buchwald spoke candidly about their depressions and about the lifeline of support that developed among them during their episodes. (All three were living on Martha's Vineyard at the time of their ordeals.) In his acknowledgment of Art Buchwald's support, Styron said:
"I have to give Art credit. He was the Virgil to our Dante. Because he'd been there [in hell] before, like Virgil. And he really charted the depths, and so it was very, very useful to have Art on the phone, because we needed it. Because this is a new experience for everyone, and it's totally-it's totally terrifying. And you need someone who has been there to give you parameters and an understanding of where you're going."
In my depressive state, I did not have a Buchwald-a brother or sister survivor who had been to hell and back-who could assure me of my future deliverance. What I did have, however, was a committed group of individuals who "kept the high watch" by holding a vision of my healing until it came to pass. And so I learned the lesson that is granted to survivors of emotional and physical trauma: when Divine love heals us, it most often comes through the healing love of other people.
Putting the Power of Support Into Practice
Building a good support network takes time and the process is unique to each person. It means surrounding yourself with people who can validate what you are going though and who can unconditionally accept you. Some of the members of a support system may include:
- family and close friends
- an ally such as a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, rabbi, minister, priest, 12 step sponsor or friend in whom you can confide
- group support- Here is where you can gain (and give) help and encouragement from (and to) others who are going through experiences like yours. In a support group, you learn that you are not alone in your suffering, and that there are others who truly understand your pain. To find a depression or anxiety support group in your area, call your local mental health clinic, hospital, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (800-950-NAMI) or the Depressive and Related Affective Disorder Association (410-955-4647).
Other types of group support you may wish to seek out include a 12-step group, a women's group, a men's group, group therapy, a self-help group that focuses on any issue you are dealing with, or a Master Mind group.
In addition to the support of human beings, I want to mention the support of animals, especially domestic pets. The unconditional love that we give to and receive from our animal friends can be as healing as human love. (This is why pets are increasingly brought to hospital wards and nursing homes.) A loving relationship with a cherished pet provides bonding and intimacy that can strengthen one's psychological immune system and help keep depression at bay.
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