If it’s May, it must be Mental Health Month, that special, warm, cozy time of the year that we all gather around our medication bottles and sing a little mental health happiness song.
Yes, I’m starting a new tradition. Please join in if you’d like.
But for most Americans, Mental Health Month is meant to highlight mental health issues in a positive light to help people better understand them. Understanding something means not being so afraid of it, and if you’re not so afraid of something, maybe you won’t seek to avoid that thing in your life (e.g., stigmatize it). Virtually every big health condition or concern has such an “awareness month.”
Mental Health America, formerly the National Association for Mental Health, brings us a timely survey this month to let us know something that I think most people already knew — most people have friends. They also found these surprising results:
- Most people have an emotional bond with at least one other person
- Most people talk to other people about important decisions in their lives
- Most people have someone in their lives that appreciates them for who they are
Heady stuff, no?
The survey is meant to support MHA’s theme for Mental Health Month this year — “Get Connected.” But with response rates well over 90%, it shows that most people already have strong social connections in their lives. And while we may believe a larger social network benefits all, the research is decidedly mixed on whether social relationships help buffer stress. But don’t let the data mess up a good PR opportunity:
Research shows that social connectedness can reduce stress and promote overall health by providing a sense of belonging, self-worth and security.
“Individuals who feel valued and cared for are better equipped to deal with stress and adversity and even experience less severe illnesses than those with little social support,” said David Shern, Ph.D., president & CEO of Mental Health America. “The results of this survey are overwhelmingly positive because they show that most Americans do, in fact, have supportive relationships and that they recognize the vital role these relationships play in protecting them from depression and other illnesses.”
This sounds like the stress-buffering model (as described in Burton et. al., 2004):
This interactive model posits that, when faced with troubling life events, individuals with greater support from family and friends are less likely to become depressed than individuals with lower levels of support. This social support presumably enhances efficacy, esteem, and confidence, thereby increasing an individual’s perception that he or she can cope effectively with negative life events. In addition, the tangible support provided by network members may directly facilitate the resolution of negative life events (e.g., financial assistance).
But unfortunately, despite the fact that this theory is widely accepted, there’s actual little positive research support for it. I’ll let Burton et. al. (2004) tell you:
In sum, results from our study provided support for the assertions that negative life events and deficits in social support increase the risk for development of depressive pathology, but they also suggest that only certain sources of support had predictive power.
More importantly, despite the fact that the stress-buffering hypothesis is widely accepted (e.g., S. Cohen & Wills, 1985; Leavy, 1983), our review of the literature suggested that there was very little prospective support for this interactive model. Although we attempted to provide a more sensitive test of this model by improving on certain limitations of past studies, we still did not find support for the stress-buffering model.
This state of affairs suggests that it might be prudent to acknowledge that this intuitively attractive model does not accord with [our] findings and implies that we should refocus our research efforts on new etiologic accounts concerning how risk factors may work together to promote depressive pathology.
Of course social relationships in our lives are important. Lack of social support can be (but isn’t always) predictive of future depressive symptoms. But the mere presence of social relationships isn’t going to help “protect” you from future stress or depressive symptoms.
Mental Health America’s survey reveals that most people share this false belief about the stress-buffering effect. Nearly all respondents believe that having close relationships helps people relieve stress (94%) and helps protect them from developing depression and other mental health conditions (93%). Slightly less (86%) believe that not having close relationships can put them at risk for illness.
So, Happy Mental Health Month! Let’s get it off to a start on the right foot by being honest about how far “social connectedness” can really take a person. Having positive social relationships in your life is important, but probably not in the way suggested by Mental Health America’s press release.
Burton, E., Stice, E. & Seeley, J.R. (2004). A Prospective Test of the Stress-Buffering Model of Depression in Adolescent Girls: No Support Once Again. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(4), 689-697.