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Social Support and Its Role in Mental Health

by: Stephanie Azzi, B.A., Counsellor

Humans are social beings; we all rely and depend on the support of others to help us deal with the difficulties we encounter in everyday life. Social support is a concept that encompasses the physical and emotional support we receive from our surrounding social worlds (e.g., our cities, neighborhoods), as well as from our personal relationships. We may receive social support from romantic partners, relatives, friends, coworkers, as well as from our social and community ties (Taylor, 2012). 

To better understand what effective social support looks like, it is important to look at two aspects of social support: received social support and perceived social support. Received social support refers to the emotional or physical support that is provided to a person by others, usually in a specific context or situation, and that is not always appreciated by this individual receiving it (Uchino, 2009). Perceived social support refers to a person’s beliefs about how available support is to them when they need it, and to how much they believe they are receiving it in different situations (Uchino, 2009). 

Social support can have positive effects on our physical health (e.g., reduces the risk of mortality; Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2010) and on our mental health (e.g., reduces anxiety; Harandi et al., 2017); however, not all social support appears to be beneficial at all times. Whether or not social support is positive and beneficial appears to depend on various aspects of the support, such as who provides it and whether it is considered appropriate for the situation (Taylor, 2012). Certain forms of support may be more valued when they are provided from different individuals. For example, emotional support (i.e., providing empathy, affection and caring towards someone; Kent de Grey, Uchino, Trettevik, Cronan, & Hogan, 2018) seems to be most appreciated when received by close family members, spouses, and friends but may be perceived as unhelpful and unwanted from acquaintances (Dakof & Taylor, 1990). 

While we all need some form of social support as we deal with the vicissitudes of life, when reaching out for certain types of social support it is important that we consider who you are reaching out to and what type of support you are needing.

Stephanie Azzi, B.A., is a Ph.D. student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of Ottawa. She is currently completing a practicum at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Ottawa, under the supervision of Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. Stephanie works with individual adults and couples, providing psychological assessment and treatment services for a wide range of presenting issues including depression, anxiety, and interpersonal difficulties.