Relationships are crucial to resilience. Having strong networks of social support and at least one ‘confiding’ relationship increases resilience and wellbeing. The term “social capital” seems to have been in popular use among social scientists for at least 30 years, and captures the value of relationships for individuals. It is used by social workers and psychologists to assess the level of vulnerability of an individual.
A recent BBC Radio 4 programme, “How to Turn Your life Around” in the “Seriously…” series (podcast still available for free on the BBC Radio 4 website), the presenters (Byron Vincent, a writer and poet, and Dr Anna Woodhouse, a university lecturer and outreach worker,) conclude that the thing which had made a difference to them personally was a significant relationship in each of their lives, someone who believed in them.
While their insight is valuable and the podcast is fascinating, a supportive relationship involves two people. One person who is encouraging and supportive, but the other person must allow themselves to be influenced.
Tracy says: “I was a homeless teenager – I had to leave home because of the violence. It was the solution to everything in my family, Dad hit mum, mum hit me, I could never hurt her I was afraid to, but I knew that it was wrong, what she was doing to me. She was always angry with me and everything I did was wrong. I felt like I was dying inside, and I wanted to die. I planned to kill myself at 11 by hanging (In my fantasy, when my mum found my body, she wasn’t sorry or sad, she was just even angrier because I had got away from her). I was collecting the things I needed, trying to get hold of a strong enough length of rope, then I was talking to a girl at school at school who was planning to run away and so then I had this other idea. I don’t regret it, I don’t regret anything I did then, I was a kid and I am lucky to have survived, but running away can be habit-forming and by the time I was twenty, I was on the other side of the world and I had no one. I had a kind of nervous breakdown and stopped leaving the house. Someone I knew from work came around one day and actually physically took me to see a therapist. When I look back that feels like the first time anyone said “Terrible things have happened to you, but we are going to help you.” The therapist gave me a cup of tea. Told me I could stay in the room as long as I wanted. I carried on going for years, she only charged me what I could afford, and I was poor for a long time. So the relationship that turned my life around was with a professional. And that sounds so pathetic and Billy-no-mates but actually I always had friends who helped me, and everything anyone ever did added a little bit to my chances of survival. It’s just that she helped me the most, and that was the kind of help I needed.”
In the complex interaction between our personal qualities and social environment whether or not we have the relationships we need to sustain us can seem to come down to luck.
It has often been observed that we don’t choose our family, and some of us don’t gain from contact with them
However if we recognise the importance of social factors in recovery and in maintaining mental health and well being we can choose to cultivate the relationships that can sustain us.
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