diverse group of friends greeting each other with an elbow bump and wearing masks | social support mental health
Read time: 12 min

Key points

  • Social support is key to mental well-being and connected to longevity. 
  • Having a support system is especially vital in a time of social unrest. 
  • Connecting virtually doesn’t replace in-person support, but it can still be a powerful and important tool in a time of physical distancing.

Having solid social support means having people you can go to when you need to talk—which has become more important than ever over the past year. Between the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult but necessary conversations about race and politics, having real-life, in-person social support has a profound impact on us—it actually helps us live longer. A landmark study in 2010 found that those with strong social relationships had a 50 percent higher chance of living longer than those with weak social ties, and a more recent 2016 study found that over the course of different life stages, social connections are just as important for health as diet and exercise. 

“The amount of social connection a person needs to feel fulfilled may vary across individuals, but in general, it’s important that we feel listened to and validated,” says Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, a research fellow at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. 

According to the MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, social support can be classified into two categories: emotional and instrumental. 

  • Emotional support is when you feel loved, cared for, and valuable.
  • Instrumental support is actionable help others can provide—for example, helping you study, putting you in touch with the right resources, or letting you sleep on their couch. This is “just as important if not more than emotional support,” says Dr. Scyatta Wallace, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University in New York. 

“Just saying, ‘I’m having a hard time with a situation’ can open a line of communication to solutions you wouldn’t have come up with on your own. [We can support others by] asking how our classmates, family, or coworkers are, and being observant to their body language. For example, saying, ‘I noticed X…if you need to talk, let me know.’ Extend that olive branch and build trust, and don’t break that trust.”

—Sarah Y., graduate student, Concordia University, Oregon

Over the years, Americans as a whole have become more socially isolated. Between 1985 and 2004, a nationwide survey found that our social networks had reduced in size by about a third, and the number of people who reported not having anyone to share important matters with had increased from 10 to 25 percent, according to data from University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. In 2019, health care company Cigna surveyed over 10,000 adults in the US and found that 61 percent reported feeling lonely due to a lack of social support (up from 54 percent the previous year). It’s too early to measure the full impact of isolation caused by the pandemic, but it’s profound—85 percent of students surveyed in a recent CampusWell poll said that they’re feeling more isolated. 

Despite the increased isolation, just a few close relationships (or even one) can be enough to help us feel connected.

group of Black male friends laughing outdoors | social support mental health

The importance of having a social support system

Before we get to tips on how to build your social support network, let’s go over why it’s so important to have it in the first place.

1. It helps us feel less stressed

There’s a direct link between how supported we feel and how stressed we are. According to the American Institute of Stress, emotional support reduces the damaging physiological effects of stress, including a rise in blood pressure and the secretion of stress hormones. Indeed, 59 percent of adults surveyed in 2019 for the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey said that they could have used more emotional support in the previous year. Similarly, a 2020 review of studies found that social support can help mitigate the negative effects of stress on college students. 

The good news? Social support can be as simple as receiving a kind word. Research conducted by Dr. Janice McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and author of Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success, found that student participants reported receiving texts from friends that say things like “Good luck” or “You’ve got it!” before exams or assignments helped them feel more confident and less stressed.

smiling emoji with sweatband2. It boosts our physical health

Having a strong social network (i.e., not feeling socially isolated) may positively affect how well you sleep, your impulse control, and blood pressure, suggests a 2014 literature review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

Having a top-notch support network can even help your wounds heal faster and strengthen the immune response, according to a study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine—which is more important now than ever. The key is that positive social connections help reduce stress, which negatively impacts your immune system, according to Harvard Health.

worried emoji3. It helps protect us from depression and anxiety

The idea that social support protects against depression and anxiety is well documented in scientific research across numerous studies. This holds true even for those who have been through more challenging life experiences. For example, a 2017 nationwide study of adults who had experienced difficult or traumatic childhood events found that those who reported having consistent social and emotional support were the least likely to report feeling depressed as adults.

“College is such a transformative time when we figure out so much about ourselves—it’s also the time many mental health issues like depression and anxiety first emerge,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. “Support is critical to understanding what’s going on and getting help; it helps us normalize these feelings.”

young Asian woman video chatting on mobile device at home | social support mental health

The role of virtual connections

The power of the internet to build positive connections is controversial. Social media can help galvanize communities (as we saw last summer over weeks of record demonstrations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement) and help us build connections we otherwise never would. But “while social media can make it easier to connect with and support others, it can also make it easier to feel like you’re not measuring up,” says Dr. McCabe. Young adults who use social media the most (in the top 25 percent) are three times as likely to feel lonely and disconnected compared to infrequent users, suggests a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

But in an era where meeting in person is challenging, connecting virtually has become a necessary part of life. “When using tech as a way to build connections, it’s very important to establish boundaries,” says Minaa B., LMSW, a therapist in New York City. “That can look like unfollowing or muting a person’s account, using the in-app timer to set a limit for how long you can be on that particular app and learning to build social connections along with a self-care routine that outweighs the constant desire to be online. With everything in life, boundaries are critical.”

“I try to zoom/video call with my roommates from undergrad every couple of weeks,” says Ryan C., a first-year graduate student at West Chester University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. “I text and Snapchat almost daily with people. Weekly phone calls home to my parents are also really helpful and something to look forward to.”

friends exercising outdoors wearing masks | social support mental health

How can you get more social support—especially in light of physical distancing?

You can still find meaningful social connections in the age of the coronavirus. Physically distancing does not have to mean socially distancing—there are plenty of ways to connect safely with your support network.

Talk to friends and family

“Friends and family are the ones who know you best, and sometimes they can tell you’re struggling before anyone else does,” says Patricia Saltzman, a licensed clinical social worker at Community Child Guidance Clinic, Inc. in Connecticut.

Find ways to keep doing what you love—safely

“Think about what you enjoy doing and find a place where you can do that—it may be video games and you join a gaming club, or yoga and you hit up a class, or soccer and you join an intramural or club soccer team,” says Dr. McCabe. 

Reach out for professional help

“For students who often feel alone or feel they have no one to turn to, going to therapy can help you get the support you need,” says Deborah Epstein, a registered psychotherapist at a private practice in Toronto. 

Use this resource to find a therapist near you or visit your campus counseling center.

Find online support

Opening up virtually may be easier for some people. Luckily, there is a new wave of virtual counseling options:  

GET HELP OR FIND OUT MORE

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Article sources

Minaa B., LMSW, licensed master social worker, New York City, New York. 

Deborah Epstein, MEd, registered psychotherapist, private practice, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Janice McCabe, PhD, associate professor of sociology, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; author of Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success.

Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, technology and social connection researcher, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

Drew (Christopher) Ramsey, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Council on Communications.

Patricia Saltzman, LCSW, Community Child Guidance Clinic, Inc., Connecticut.

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