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Social Connections Key to Maintaining Mental Well-being

  • September 30, 2020
  • Depression, Patients and Families

Positive social connections have consistently been shown to support mental health and well-being. New research finds that social support is also key to coping with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has upended life for most of us, and the uncertainty, economic strain and isolation have left many struggling with stress, anxiety or depression. While building and maintaining social connections may be more challenging with required physical distancing and limited gatherings, social support plays an important in supporting mental well-being.

A recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that among people following social isolation and physical distancing practices during COVID-19, social support was associated with reduced risk of depression and better sleep quality. Sufficient quality sleep is an important factor in mental and physical health. In the study, people with high perceived social support had a 63% lower risk of depression and a 52% lower risk of poor sleep quality compared to those with low perceived social support. The study also found that reducing sedentary activities, such as watching TV and other screen time, could help lower the risk of depression.

Another recent study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital identified social connection as the strongest protective factor for depression. The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in August, looked at more than 100 modifiable factors, including lifestyle (such as exercise and diet), social (such as support and engagement), and environmental factors (such as green space and pollution). Using a large database of more than 100,000 individuals, they found social connection to be an important preventive factor in the general populations and among people at increased risk for depression.

Difficult or negative social interactions, on the other hand, may have harmful affects on mental health, according to a study from Penn State researchers. They looked at mental well-being and use of coping strategies early in the pandemic and found that social strain—such as someone making demands, criticizing, letting down, or getting on one’s nerves—was consistently associated with greater stress, depression and anxiety. The negative impact of social strain on mental health “deserves continued focus in the wake of COVID-19, given the probability that strain is heightened under stay-at-home orders,” the authors suggest.

The Penn State researchers also found that adopting forward-looking coping strategies was associated with better mental health. These include strategies such as keeping a consistent schedule, reminding yourself that things will get better, finding activities to distract yourself, and taking care of others who need help. Following public health guidelines, such as physical distancing, masking and hand washing, was also associated with reduced stress. The researchers suggest that more broadly this “indicates that taking principled action to protect physical health from risk is also beneficial to mental health.”


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