How to Create a Personal Support Team

Anything that promotes a sense of love and intimacy, connection and community, is healing.

Dean Ornish, Author of Love and Survival

When I look over my own suicidal episode and read the accounts of others who have survived suicidal pain, I can see a repeated theme: In most cases, other people have been an essential part of the recovery process. It is widely known that social support is a protective factor for surviving suicidal pain.

In addition to the psychological value of social connection, interactions with others can remind you that you are not alone; people who care about you can help you find hope that you can recover, and they can also help you get additional support.

Because this kind of connection with others is a buffer against suicide, I encourage you to create your own support team–one or more people that you can turn to when you need encouragement and support.

What are the groups of people that you might draw from to provide the social support that you need? 

Family and close friends

Your family and friends may be the support that is closest at hand and often are the first line of defense against dying by suicide. Being in their presence will help you feel a sense of belonging and to feel less lonely and isolated, providing a buffer against suicide. Moreover, family and friends in your close circle can help you in a number of other ways:

  • They can participate with you in activities that will shift your focus away from your suicidal pain. These include taking walks in the neighborhood or in nature, watching a movie, going out to eat, or playing a game.For example, a friend of mine and her husband watched every single episode of Downton Abbey for months to get her through a difficult time.
  • They can encourage and support you in taking care of yourself. They can keep you focused on doing things such as exercising, eating healthy meals, and getting good (but not too much) sleep. They might drive you to the doctor, to counseling appointments, or to a class at the gym.
  • They can encourage you when your morale is down, reminding you that there were times in your life when you were actually feeling well; especially when those positive experiences are difficult for you to recall.

During one of my depressive episodes, I was fortunate to have this kind of support. My wife Joan was my primary caretaker, providing human connection and comfort. A friend and I spent time putting jigsaw puzzles together, and my good friends Stuart and Zopa took me on long hikes in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Finally, during the times when I was extremely anxious, my friend David drove me to my therapy and psychiatry appointments. I feel very blessed that these and other people supported me during my time of despair.

Even if you have people who are close to you, it is important that you find additional ways to get the support that you need. It is also important that you are not relying on your family and friends exclusively.

Other ways of finding support

Not everybody is fortunate enough to have people around them that can provide mental and emotional support. I receive frequent comments and emails from my YouTube viewers who tell me that they are lonely and isolated and have few connections with other people. Fortunately, there are other sources of support.

Mental health professionals

For many people having a therapist as part of their personal support team is critical. Sometimes family and friends simply can’t understand the suicidal pain you are struggling with, especially if you have a severe mental health disorder such as major depression.

Having a therapist means more than just having a person to confide in. They can help you to problem solve and provide coping strategies that will allow you to manage your emotions and stay safe.

Leaders in your neighborhood faith community

Leaders in spiritual communities are trained to work with people in distress. Some spiritual leaders may also have mental health training. You can reach out to a rabbi, minister, priest, pujari, or imam in your community. Faith-based counselors can offer you a spiritual perspective on your suffering, or they can pray with and for you.  

One such faith leader who helped me persevere was Michael Moran, the assistant minister of the spiritual center that I was attending. When my despair included losing faith that I would ever write again, Michael assured me that my creative inspiration had not left me; it had just been obscured by my suicidal pain. Sure enough, six weeks after my episode ended, I was inspired to begin work on my memoir, When Going Through Hell Don’t Stop! A Survivor’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety and Clinical Depression.

Twelve Step groups

If part of your pain is a result of struggling with addiction, Twelve Step groups can be a godsend. Twelve Step groups provide a “fellowship” of people who can share the journey of recovery with you. In addition, when you attend a group, you can work with a “sponsor”—another person in recovery—who is willing to be there for you when you need extra support. The sponsor is there to listen to you, to validate your feelings, and to encourage you in staying sober. Twelve Step groups include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • Al-Anon 
  • Smart Recovery
  • Codependents Anonymous (CoDA), 
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA OR ACA)
  • Overeaters Anonymous (OA)
  • Emotions Anonymous (EA)
  • Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
  • Gamblers Anonymous (GA)
  • Marijuana Anonymous (MA)
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
  • Food Addicts Anonymous (FA)

Mental health peer support groups

As someone who facilitated educational mental health support groups for many years, I can speak to their healing power. Interacting with people who have common experiences will help you to see that you are not alone in your struggles. Having other people in the trenches with you will give you the support you need to soldier on, and by listening to others, you can learn what helps in coping with suicidal pain.

Four excellent organizations that offer free mental health peer support groups in the United States are:

You can also check with your local hospitals and mental health centers to see if they run any similar support groups in your area.

It’s not a hotline; it’s a “warmline”

A “warmline” is a call-in service that connects you to peers who have lived through mental health struggles. You don’t have to be in a crisis to call a warmline; you can just call and talk to somebody about whatever struggles you are going through; it is like checking in with a good friend who provides empathy and understanding. You can find a warmline in your area at warmline.org 

Activity: Build Your Own Support Team

Use the categories on this page and take some time to make a list of people and organizations that you would like to see on your support team. Alongside that list, write specific ways you would like them to support you. Include at least one mental health professional. The more sources of support you can think of the better.

Then begin to reach out to those on your list, starting with the people who you think would be most supportive. When talking with your potential support team , it can be helpful to have some starting language at hand, such as:

“I’m going through a very difficult period, and I am looking for people in my life who can offer some support and encouragement. May I call on you for walks in the park from time to time?”

Write your own words you can use to begin a conversation with people you would like to have in your support team. As you reach out to people, keep in mind, you are fighting for your life, and so any level of help you receive will tip the scales of survival in your favor.