Social Support

While everyone experiences stress and negative life events, social relationships can act as protective factors against the development of mental health symptoms or psychological health disorders.[ Reference 1 ]

Positive social support is associated with physical and psychological benefits such as:

  • Lower mortality rates[ Reference 2 ]

  • Better cardiovascular health, immune response, and blood pressure[ Reference 3 ], [ Reference 2 ]

  • Lower rates of trauma- and stressor-related mental health disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[ Reference 4 ]

  • Higher resilience to stress[ Reference 5 ]

The stress-buffering theory proposes that positive primary relationships can mitigate the harmful effects of stress by giving an individual a sense of purpose, identity, security, embeddedness, and comfort.[ Reference 6 ] These relationships can also reinforce health-promoting behaviors (e.g., healthy eating and exercise) and discourage health-comprising behaviors (e.g., drinking, smoking, etc.).[ Reference 7 ] While peer support is helpful, support from primary relationships (i.e., marital relationships and romantic relationships) has been found to be most beneficial to overall well-being and mental health.[ Reference 2 ], [ Reference 4 ]

Meanwhile, symptoms of stress, including combat and operational stress reactions, can erode social relationships.[ Reference 8 ] When irritability, angry outbursts, and avoidance or isolating behaviors occur, these symptoms can undermine the protective nature of healthy social support.

Unhealthy patterns in primary relationships can also adversely impact service members’ adjustment and readiness.[ Reference 9 ], [ Reference 10 ], [ Reference 11 ] Interpersonal conflict is the most commonly reported problem on post-deployment health reassessments, suggesting that prevention interventions that strengthen relationships and improve communication skills could be helpful in ameliorating individual and couple distress.[ Reference 12 ], [ Reference 13 ], [ Reference 14 ]

Resources

The following resources can support service members, leaders, and providers.

References

  1. Adams, R.E., Urosevich, T.G., Hoffman, S.N., Kirchner, H.L., Hyacinthe, J.C., Figley, C.R., Boscarino, J.J., & Boscarino, J.A. (2017). Social support, help-seeking, and mental health outcomes among veterans in non-VA facilities: Results from the Veteran’s Health Study. Military Behavioral Health, 5(4), 393-405. https://doi.org/10.1080/21635781.2017.1333067

    [

  2. Umberson, D., & Montez, J.K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health Sociological Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54-S66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501

  3. Ertel, K.A., Glymour, M., & Berkman, L.F. (2009). Social networks and health: A life course perspective integrating observational and experimental evidence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(1), 73-92. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407509105523

  4. Gariepy, G., Honkaniemi, H., & Quesnel-Vallee, A. (2016). Social support and protection from depression: Systematic review of current findings in Western countries. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 209, 284-293. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.115.169094

  5. Ozbay, F., Johnson, D.C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, III, C.A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35–40. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/

  6. Thoits, P.A. (2011). Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. Journal of Healthy Social Behaviors, 52(2), 145-161. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510395592

  7. Ibid

  8. King, D., Taft, C., King, L., Hammond, C., & Stone, E. (2006). Directionality of the association between social support and posttraumatic stress disorder: A longitudinal investigation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 2980–2992. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0021-9029.2006.00138.x

  9. Cigrang, J.A., Balderrama-Durbin, C., Snyder, D.K., Talcott, G.W., Tatum, J., Baker, M., Cassidy, D., Sonnek, S., Slep, A.M.S., & Heyman, R.E. (2015). Predictors of suicidal ideation across deployment: A prospective study. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(9), 828-842. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22192

  10. Hoge, C. W., Auchterlonie, J. L., & Milliken, C. S. (2006). Mental health problems, use of mental health services, and attrition from military service after returning from deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Journal of the American Medical Association, 295, 1023-1032. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.295.9.1023

  11. Milliken, C. S., http://doi.org/10.1001/jama.298.18.2141Auchterlonie, J. L., & Hoge, C. W. (2007). Longitudinal assessment of mental health problems among active and reserve component soldiers returning from the Iraq War. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298, 2141-2148. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.298.18.2141

  12. Gibbs, D.A., Clinton-Sherrod, A.M., & Johnson, R.E. (2012). Interpersonal conflict and referrals to counseling among married soldiers following return from deployment. Military Medicine, 177(10), 1178-1183. https://doi.org/10.7205/MILMED-D-12-00008

  13. Foran, H.M., Slep, A.M., Heyman, R.E., & United States Air Force Family Advocacy Research Program. (2011). Prevalences of intimate partner violence in a representative U.S. Air Force sample. Journal of Consult Clinical Psychology, 79(3), 391-397. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022962

  14. Makin-Byrd, K., Gifford, E., McCutcheon, S., & Shirley, G. (2011). Family and couples treatment for newly returning veterans. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(1), 47-55. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0022292