By Dr. Adel Mburia-Mwalili, Teaching Assistant Professor, UNR School of Public Health
Human beings are social creatures by nature. Supporting one another — providing a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand, a note of encouragement — is not only emotionally rewarding but also crucial to our long-term happiness and health.
Many people may be surprised to discover just how important social support is for enduring hardships, illness and other stressful life changes. Public health professionals need to understand the different types of social support and why they should prioritize interventions that foster social support within our communities.
What Is Social Support?
Most people face numerous challenges throughout their lives: a financial downturn, a bad breakup, a fear-inducing medical diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, for example. Stressors like these test our resilience.
Contrary to the persistent American narrative that tells us to cope with these challenges as solitary makers of our own destinies, science has shown that seeking support from others makes us stronger and more adaptable to life’s misfortunes.
- Research published in a 2021 issue of Frontiers in Psychology found that social support lessens the negative effects of burnout (emotional exhaustion caused by chronic stress) among care professionals.
- Studies published in BMC Psychiatry on social support and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that high levels of social support can act as a buffer against the mental strain caused by health-related stressors.
Social support refers to any resources — whether material, psychological, financial or emotional — provided by a social network to help deal with stress. “People are doing it all the time; they just might not know they are giving or receiving [what public health officials call] ‘social support,’” says Dr. Adel Mburia-Mwalili, teaching assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The term is broad, encompassing support that comes from family ties, friendships and even the occasional encouragement from acquaintances in online communities.
Just believing that one has social support can be powerful. Researchers refer to this as “perceived social support” versus “received social support.” The latter is what people gain in terms of material benefits from another person or group, while the former refers to the sense a person has of being a part of a supportive social group.
Social support, whether perceived or received, can have a positive effect on health and well-being.
Why Is Social Support Important?
A strong social support network has a direct effect on many aspects of health and wellness. An abundance of public health and psychological research shows that greater social support correlates with better health outcomes.
Dr. Mburia-Mwalili, who has studied the effects of social support on women who have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) and people living with HIV, explains that social support fosters resilience and can create a buffer against the negative effects of IPV and help individuals cope with the HIV illness.
“One of my studies found people who reported having low or no social support tended to report more depressive symptoms compared to those who had higher social support,” Dr. Mburia-Mwalili says. “If you look at most studies, social support, every single time, is a protective force for all these health conditions.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, social support networks can help to:
- Regulate the effects of emotional distress
- Promote lifelong mental health
- Enhance self-esteem
- Reduce loneliness, indirectly putting people at lower risk for poor mental health and cardiovascular disease
- Encourage healthy lifestyle behaviors (e.g., eating well)
- Support adherence to treatment plans
4 Types of Social Support
Social support comes in many forms, as the following four types of social support illustrate:
Sometimes called instrumental support, material support includes any tangible, material aid or service to another person or group. This can be someone lending a cup of sugar to a neighbor, a church group pooling money together to support a family that recently lost a source of income, a friend helping another friend pack for a move across the country or a student sharing a copy of their textbook with a classmate.
Emotional support comes from expressions of empathy, trust, caring, hope and love. Close family and friends often reciprocate emotional support to each other. Listening to another person can provide a sense of solidarity and connection, as well as foster feelings of emotional safety to share one’s vulnerabilities.
Sometimes the kind of support a person needs is information. Informational support is any advice, suggestions or facts that can help a person overcome a challenge. For example, a Facebook group that offers guidance about what to expect from chemotherapy treatments may provide informational support to a person who recently received a cancer diagnosis.
Another form of social support is helping someone think and evaluate — not by providing new information but by asking questions and considering their values.
For example, imagine a person who needs to decide whether to take a high-paying job in another country far from their relatives or stay close to home to take care of their aging parents. In addition to needing emotional support (through listening and showing empathy), they may seek guidance from a friend.
When a friend asks what we think they should do, we’re being called to help them evaluate (or appraise) the situation before them.
How to Foster Social Support in the Classroom
Many people need more social support than they currently have. Public health leaders and teachers, including Dr. Mburia-Mwalili, understand the value of helping others grow their social support networks.
To this end, Dr. Mburia-Mwalili designs collaborative projects for students to complete in “buddy groups” of three to five people. By creating environments for students to learn from one another — not just their teacher — Dr. Mburia-Mwalili creates opportunities for her students to foster social support. “They can ask each other questions and help each other — and provide social support,” she says.
Students can build their own social support networks, too. Although reaching out and asking for support can be a vulnerable experience, the positive effects are well worth the risk. Students should consider forming a study group, asking a peer to meet up at a cafe to discuss course material or communicating with other students online — all of which have the opportunity to strengthen social ties.
Cultivate Social Support and Become a Public Health Advocate
Social support is not just an enjoyable benefit of spending time with others — it’s protective against illness. Public health leaders understand that strengthening community health can start with empowering existing social support networks, giving our communities more tools and resources to create systems of mutual support.
Looking for a degree program to take your next step in public health leadership? The online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice from the University of Nevada, Reno is designed to strengthen your knowledge of current issues in public health, including cutting-edge research on social support. Take courses with experts in public health who care about your success, such as Dr. Adel Mburia-Mwalili. Learn how the MPH program can prepare you to make a difference in public health.