Group of students with arms around each other

I began feeling pretty out of it after starting college. I had just moved away from a tight-knit friend group in my hometown and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I’d come back from class, stuff my face with junk while binge-watching Netflix, and consciously try to shut out the world. It felt like I was slogging through mud just trying to get through each day. Despite how I was feeling, when family and friends would call to ask how I was doing, I always responded with, “Everything’s great!”

I ignored how lost and empty I felt, and the problem continued to grow.

What helped me get out of my funk

One day, I was sitting in a coffee shop, and a woman wearing a bright purple sweater sat down next to me. She saw that I was stressed (was it that obvious?), told me her name was Marianne, and gently asked me to share my thoughts with her. I was a little hesitant at first. What did she want?

“All I want to do is listen,” she said, which quickly put me at ease. I opened up and told her how I’d been feeling. She sat and listened to me without judgment, and it showed me the impact that one person who’s willing to listen can have—even when it’s a total stranger.

After talking to Marianne, I wondered why talking—and feeling heard—helped so much. This got me thinking about how speaking to someone about our problems might just be one of the keys to overcoming our struggles. Then I looked at the research and found a ton of evidence to back this idea up—and that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

—Asher Lipsitz, writer and co-founder of Recline, an online service offering peer counseling and support


Why social support matters

Having solid social support means having people you can come to when you need to talk—whether it’s about friend drama, a bad grade, feeling down after a breakup, or something else. Your support network can include anyone from friends to family to mental health practitioners (and, occasionally, even strangers). That said, “tangible support is just as important if not more than emotional support—e.g., having people that’ll support you in getting things you need, resources, providing a helping hand,” says Dr. Scyatta Wallace, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University in New York.

Having real-life, in-person social support has a profound impact on us—it actually helps us live longer. A 2010 review of 148 studies found that those with strong social relationships had a 50 percent higher chance of living longer than those with weak social ties (PloS Medicine).

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“I generally stick to talking to close friends, family, and my spouse. I never fear talking to those who know me, because I know they won’t judge me and always have my back,” says Alicia B., a first-year graduate student at Wayne State University in Michigan.

According to the MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, social support can be classified into two categories: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental support is actionable help others can provide—for example, helping you study, giving you a ride, or letting you sleep on their couch. Emotional support is when you feel loved, cared for, and valuable.

Both kinds of support are beneficial for students. “The amount of social connection a person needs to feel fulfilled may vary across individuals, but in general, it’s important that we feel listened to and validated,” says Jacqueline Nesi, a technology and social connection researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Peer Relations Lab. “It’s also important to have reciprocal relationships that we can turn to when we need emotional or instrumental support.”

Student perspective: How to give and receive social support

“Just saying, ‘I’m having a hard time with a situation’ can open a line of communication to solutions you wouldn’t have come up with on your own. [We can support others by] asking how our classmates, family, or coworkers are, and being observant to their body language. For example, saying, ‘I noticed X…if you need to talk, let me know.’ Extend that olive branch and build trust and don’t break that trust.”
—Sarah Y., second-year graduate student, Concordia University, Oregon

Over the years, Americans as a whole have become more socially isolated. Between 1985 and 2004, a nationwide survey found that our social networks had reduced in size by about a third, and the number of people who reported not having anyone to share important matters with had increased from 10 to 25 percent, according to data from University of Chicago’s General Social Survey.

Are we trading time with friends in person for time online?

In the age of online “friends” and followers, students are spending less time than ever face-to-face with their peers, according to recent national surveys of first-year students conducted by UCLA. Here’s what the surveys found:

  • About 40 percent of students said they spend less than 5 hours a week with friends (back in 1987, that same number of students spent at least 16 hours a week socializing).
  • About 40 percent of students spend more than six hours a week on social media, which increased by about 14 percent since 2014.

While it might make you feel like you have a lot of connections, the number of online followers or friends you have doesn’t appear to affect resilience against loneliness or depression, according to a 2014 Computers in Human Behavior study. In fact, newsfeeds may separate more than connect us to others. Young adults who use social media the most (in the top 25 percent) are three times as likely to feel lonely and disconnected compared to infrequent users, suggests a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“While social media can make it easier to connect with and support others, it can also make it easier to feel like you’re not measuring up,” says Dr. Janice McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and author of Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success. “Most posts on social media show people in positive ways—surrounded by friends, having fun, doing things together, looking their best, etc.—so the social comparison that people engage in as they consume social media can lead to isolation.”

“It’s important for individuals to take a mindful approach to their technology use, asking themselves which online activities help them to feel socially connected and which do not, and to adjust their use accordingly,” says Nesi.

group of male friends laughing

Here’s what social support does for us, according to research

Before we get to tips on how to build your social support network, let’s go over why it’s so important to have it in the first place.

1. It helps us feel less stressed

There’s a direct link between how supported we feel and how stressed we are. In a 2015 nationwide survey, those who felt emotionally supported by friends or family ranked their stress level as a 4.8 out of 10, while those who didn’t feel supported marked their stress level as a 6.3 (American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey). Similarly, college students who reported feeling lonely and less connected to those around them had higher levels of perceived stress, and more frequent and severe problems than those who felt embedded in their social networks, according to a study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, 2000.

The good news? Simple acts of kindness can really help. In an ongoing research study, student participants have reported that receiving texts from friends that say things like “‘good luck’ or ‘you’ve got it!’ before exams or assignments helped [them] feel more confident and less stressed,” according to Dr. McCabe.

2. It boosts our physical health

Having a strong social network (i.e., not feeling socially isolated) may positively affect how well you sleep, your impulse control, and blood pressure, suggests a 2014 literature review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

Having a top-notch support network can even help your wounds heal faster and strengthen the immune response, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Social support may also help protect against serious illnesses, heart attacks, obesity, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2009 study in Trends of Cognitive Science.

3. It helps protect us from depression and anxiety

The idea that social support is protective against depression and anxiety is well documented in scientific research across numerous studies. This holds true even for those who have been through more challenging life experiences. For example, a 2017 nationwide study of adults who had experienced difficult or traumatic childhood events found that those who reported having consistent social and emotional support were the least likely to report feeling depressed as adults.

“College is a time when we figure out so much about ourselves—it’s also the time many mental health issues like depression and anxiety first emerge,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Council on Communications. “Support is critical to understanding what’s going on and getting help; it helps us normalize these feelings.”

So how can you get more social support?

Getting more social support doesn’t have to be difficult or scary—today, students have many options for connecting with caring supporters.

group of close female friends

1. Talk to friends and family.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 78 percent of students said they’re most comfortable going to their friends or family when they need support or advice about something going on in their life. “Friends and family are the ones who know you best, and sometimes they can tell you’re struggling before anyone else does,” says Patricia Saltzman, a licensed clinical social worker at Community Child Guidance Clinic, Inc. in Connecticut.

“I talk to my close friends and family members. I remind myself that people who truly care about me would want me to open up about things that are bothering me.”
—Alex F., second-year student, Del Mar College, Texas

In her research, Dr. McCabe found friends who provided emotional support during college were most likely to have long-lasting friendships. For example, students mentioned how, despite geographic and professional changes after graduation, “the ones who reliably provided support and stayed in touch are the ones who continue to be friends,” says Dr. McCabe.

2. Fight the urge to isolate yourself.

It may sound like the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling down, but try to make yourself get out and do something with someone (in person may be most beneficial, according to research).

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“I force myself to invite friends over or go out to a trivia night, karaoke, things like that.”
—Elise O., recent graduate, Northern Illinois University

“Doing some kind of social activity is always helpful. Even a study session is good incentive to get people talking about personal topics and opening up [about] their worries.”
—Anne Z., recent graduate, The College of New Jersey

“Think about what you enjoy doing and find a place where you can do that—it may be video games and you join a gaming club, or yoga and you hit up a class, or soccer and you join a soccer team,” says Dr. McCabe. “If you’re out doing something you enjoy, it’s easier to connect with others.”

“Get involved with causes you care about—that’s your tribe,” Dr. Ramsey says. “Find a good group to eat with and explore the local food scene or take a class that teaches self-care like meditation or Tai Chi.”

3. Reach out for professional help.

“For students who often feel alone or feel they have no one to turn to, going to therapy can help you get the support you need,” says Dr. Deborah Epstein, a registered psychotherapist at a private practice in Toronto. Not only will therapy allow you to talk through your feelings, but you’ll also build skills and learn how to solve problems for the future.

top-down view of group of peers working together

Hint: Group therapy can help you make connections

“Last year, I started attending group therapy at my university counseling center. Although it’s nerve-racking at first to open up to people you barely know, it’s a huge relief to have a safe space where I can open up about whatever’s on my mind, knowing that my group will be there to listen.”
—Tristan P.*, fourth-year graduate student, University of Miami, Florida

Use this resource to find a therapist near you or visit your campus counseling center.

Find out what therapy is all about here.

4. Find online support.

If you don’t feel all that comfortable opening up to someone face-to-face, there are a number of online services where you can speak to a trained peer counselor over the phone or via chat. “Some students find it easier to talk to someone they don’t know because they may feel like someone close to them is more likely to judge or think differently of them,” says Saltzman.

Try any of the following, all of which provide similar support and are easily accessible:

“Sometimes looking online and seeing other people’s stories of struggle and their results from reaching out can help too. It lessens the feeling that you’re the only one feeling that way and the feelings of loneliness.”
—Theresa P., second-year student, Fleming College-Frost Campus, Ontario, Canada

5. Volunteer.

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle said, “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” It turns out some sayings do hold up—a 2005 study showed that older people who volunteer just two hours a week live longer and happier lives (Research on Aging). An added bonus? Students who participate in community service are more likely to perform better academically and attain higher levels of education, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Volunteering is a great way to build a network and create new support outlets. A weekly commitment can help you feel like you’re part of a community and expand your social circle. “Strike up a conversation with someone you meet and ask them to lunch or to study together,” says Dr. McCabe. “It’s possible that you may make not just a new friend but someone who’s a significant source of social support.”

“When I arrive in a new place, I join a church congregation, which helps me form some initial friendships. I then have to actively invite those friends to activities that I plan in order for me to form stronger relationships. After finding a few friends that I can trust, I can then slowly overcome the fear of discussing things with a social group beyond my family. It takes work, but it’s worth it.”
—Andrew D., fourth-year graduate student, University of North Dakota

Regardless of where you find support, it’s important to take steps to fulfill your mental wellness needs. We all need and deserve support and an easy place to find it, no matter where that comes from. “Little efforts pay big dividends. It’s tough to make new connections, especially when we don’t feel our best. But be nice. Be interested in others. And relax because it all works out,” says Dr. Ramsey. 

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Article sources

Deborah Epstein, MEd, registered psychotherapist, private practice, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Janice McCabe, PhD, associate professor of sociology, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; author of Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success.

Jacqueline Nesi, MA, technology and social connection researcher, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Peer Relations Lab.

Drew (Christopher) Ramsey, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Council on Communications.

Patricia Saltzman, LCSW, Community Child Guidance Clinic, Inc., Connecticut.

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