Social Support and Community, Benefits for the Mind

Written by: Ryan Soltes


Healf Journal

Social support is exceptionally important for maintaining good mental health and, therefore, physical health.

When we think of health, we often think of physical attributes and being fit. We tend to think of feeling well or not well. We have goals of feeling less bloated, lifting more weight, running faster, getting our blood analysed, and eating more greens. These are all great goals because they allow us to track improvement and progress and reach milestones. When we can visualise it, it becomes more real. It is easier to legitimise the stated goals above to our friends and family, because all can grasp the concepts of stronger muscles, better cardiovascular, and clearer skin. At the same time, we must be aware that humans are prone to paying attention to what we can see.

Written by Ryan Soltes - an organisational psychologist and coach for personal and leadership development. 

What we cannot see and monitor as easily, is one of the core pillars of health, which is the mind - our mental health. To be honest, goals for our mental health are not convenient. Our mind is not easily monitored, viewed on a smart watch, posted on social media, or compared with others. Therefore it is not given the same exposure, conversation, or value as the more convenient factors of health.

We must remember that health is a concept. A concept of not only biological or physiological aspects, but of psychological, social, cultural, economic and spiritual aspects as well. It is very important to pay attention to social factors influencing mental health, and perceived social support is one of those factors. Social support represents the amount of support that a person perceives and reports receiving it (1). Social support and community play a significant role in promoting mental health, preventing mental health disorders, and contributing to overall well-being throughout the lifespan.

Benefits of Social Support and Community

Stress Reduction:

Social support, including community and interpersonal relationships, can mitigate the impact of stress on mental health. Scientific studies maintain that positive social support, of high quality, can enhance resilience to stress, help protect against developing trauma-related psychopathology, decrease the functional consequences of trauma-induced disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and reduce medical morbidity and mortality (2).

Greater levels of group support ensure that group members feel able to collectively cope with threat, thereby reducing stress and improving health. These effects have been found across a range of groups, including people with long-term mental health problems, older adults, adolescents, and those recovering from addiction (3). 

Enhanced Well-being and Happiness:

Social integration and strong social relationships are linked to a lower risk of mortality, highlighting the potential impact on both physical and mental health.

In addition, the authors found that students with lower quality social support, as measured by the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support, were more likely to experience mental health problems, including a sixfold risk of depressive symptoms relative to students with high quality social support. (4)

Further, a lack of social support can lead to psychological distress, such as depression and loneliness, as well as social exclusion, which is detrimental to health (5). 

Reduced Risk of Cognitive Decline

Maintaining social relationships is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline in older adults.

Previous studies and systematic reviews found that older adults who receive social support from members of their social network, or perceive that support is available to them in times of need, have better mental health outcomes, including a higher level of cognitive function and a slower rate of cognitive decline. Older adults with less social support had worse cognitive performance and living alone was related to lower cognitive function and faster cognitive decline. (5)

In all, social support has been shown to reduce stress, enhance health and wellbeing, and keep our minds sharp. What is also beautiful is that it has no side effects. When we contemplate taking supplements, prescription drugs, or other interventions, we ought to take a look at our social lives as a factor in our mental health. It can lead to lifelong, sustainable improvement in how we feel and live.

What is next?

Grow your social network! Social support is not only received, but must also be given. All relationships are a two-way street. Now, you don't need a bustling entourage of friends and family to enjoy the perks of social support; sometimes, the magic happens in the intimacy of a smaller circle—whether it's your co-workers, neighbours, or the kindred spirits you meet at your local church or community centre.

For some, weaving the threads of connection can be a bit of a challenge. Life, with its twists and turns like retirement, relocation, or the poignant pangs of losing a loved one, often unravels the tapestry of established relationships. The good news? It's never too late to stitch new connections and revel in the warmth of a robust support network.

Here are some ways to add a splash of vibrancy to your social support system:

Mix and Match Connections

Don't force a one-size-fits-all approach to your social support. It's perfectly okay not to have a one-stop-shop for all your confessions. Maybe your colleague is your go-to for work-related quandaries, while your neighbour becomes the friendly ear for family foibles. Diversify your support squad, but, of course, keep it genuine and reliable to avoid any melodramatic misadventures.

Initiate First

The more you give, the more likely you are to receive. You don’t have to wait for a friend to send you a message first. Be the social maestro of your life. Make time for friends and family, extend a helping hand, or just drop a cheerful "hello." And here's a little secret—research whispers that supporting others might just be the magic potion for a longer, more fulfilling life.

It Is Alright to Lean on Technology

While nothing beats the charm of being face-to-face, it is fantastic to utilise the technology we have. Drop an email, send a heartwarming text, or plan a virtual coffee catch-up. Just remember, balance is key—don't let the digital realm overshadow the real, heartfelt connections.

Pursue Interests in Community

What do you love to do? Hiking, singing, crafting, playing chess, etc. Let your interests guide you to kindred spirits. Join clubs, sign up for classes, or dive into volunteer work that aligns with your passions. Friendships, like fine wine, often get better with time.

Be Vulnerable

Specific challenges require specific shoulders. If you're navigating a rough patch—be it caring for a family member or wrestling with a chronic illness—consider joining a support group. There's something incredibly comforting in knowing that others are facing similar storms.

Get Active

Break the ice with simple questions and let the conversation flow. For the shy souls, shared activities like a bike ride or a knitting class can be a gentle gateway to connections. If social anxiety is a persistent companion, consider a chat with a therapist well-versed in the art of social skills.

Show Compassion

If you're feeling adrift without a solid support network, try approaching some structured places of community. Community centres, volunteer opportunities, places of worship, local libraries, and even immigrant groups can be wellsprings of great people. They can guide you to services, support groups, and programs that you may be further interested in. Further, you will be in an environment that can provide a sense of purpose and meaning.

Having social support and community is imperative to mental health and wellbeing. It can be the difference maker when it comes to wellbeing, due to its myriad of health benefits - not to mention how good it feels to have people around that you can truly rely on. At times, it will not come naturally, and we must set goals and pursue it just like we would with any other aspirations. I encourage you to be mindful, and take care of your mental health by investing in those around you!

1) Harandi TF, Taghinasab MM, Nayeri TD. The correlation of social support with mental health: A meta-analysis. Electron Physician. 2017 Sep 25;9(9):5212-5222. doi: 10.19082/5212. PMID: 29038699; PMCID: PMC5633215.

2) Ozbay F, Johnson DC, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 May;4(5):35-40. PMID: 20806028; PMCID: PMC2921311.

3) McNamara, N., Stevenson, C., Costa, S., Bowe, M., Wakefield, J., Kellezi, B., ... & Mair, E. (2021). Community identification, social support, and loneliness: The benefits of social identification for personal well‐being. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(4), 1379-1402.

4)  Hefner, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2009). Social support and mental health among college students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(4), 491-499.