Proving the obvious: effective social support proves key in mental health remission

Perhaps it seems self-evident that having a strong, supportive social network aids in preventing the occurrence of, and recovering from, a mental health crisis. However, until the last year or two there had been very few well-structured studies examining exactly how a social network plays into a person’s mental health struggles.

Would study results support a link between a sparse or nonexistent network and the patient’s ability to cope? If a patient had strong social support are they more likely to recovery fully? Is adequate support equally helpful for patients dealing with chronic depression, suicidal ideation, schizophrenia, or other types of mental health issues?

Historical research deficiencies

About a year ago, a group of Brazilian researchers completed a literature review to evaluate past research on the role of the social network experienced by patients with bipolar disorder. The study recognized the lack of support provided by a patient’s social network directly influences symptom recurrence and patient prognosis. The researchers initially screened research databases for relevant studies involving social networks and bipolar disorder.

Of the 246 results, only 13 studies directly related to evaluation of social support factors and a thorough review of each study revealed small sample sizes, diverse methodologies, and sampling of symptomatic patients which frequently returns biased perceptions. Still, based on this previous set of studies, the Brazilian team concluded the research consistently verified the importance of social support and corroborated a connection between support deficiencies and bipolar disorder episodes.

Okay, so what? Well, for good or bad, we’re a society that generally bases policy-making on data. Research must prove or disprove the hypothesis du jour in order to determine the best course of legislature, social services, and public education. With occurrence of mental health issues on the rise, we need more information to best address what is becoming a national crisis.

Current research on social support

Some of the most recent social support studies examined subjects dealing with suicidal thoughts. Last year in Germany, a team investigated the remission of suicidal thoughts in almost 1400 young women and found social support was a significant predictor of successful remission regardless of their psychopathology severity.

Meanwhile, a Canadian study determined that 40% of patients who had experienced suicidal thoughts were able to achieve complete mental health if they had a reliable confidant or community. Although factors like age, gender, income status and level of spirituality factored into the results, the researchers confirmed an individual with a support network was seven times more likely to attain remission.

This concrete discovery, albeit with only one illness type, hopefully provides motivation for mental illness sufferers to seek out reliable support through their existing social network, service providers, or support groups. Likewise, family and friends of those struggling with mental illness may find solace in knowing that by staying positive and providing a stable relationship, they dramatically increase the odds of their loved one realizing a fully healthy life.

The strain of support

While it’s true that support helps many attain improvements, it’s certainly not easy to be a supporter. Coping with a loved one’s irritability, social intolerance, arrogance, depression, negativity, and the wide range of possible personality symptoms takes a toll. Even though a supporter may recognize that these behaviors may not be intentional and their loved one is being held hostage by their illness, it takes tremendous love, compassion, self-confidence, and patience to remain loyal and know how to respond. Unfortunately, a mentally ill person’s support network becomes undermined by their actions.

Friends and family comprising a support network should seek out their own support network. They too should have friends, family, service provider, or support group to lean on when they’re not at their best or an especially stressful situation occurs. Or, perhaps they need coaching on how to best support their loved one or need community support due to change in financial status.

Different approach to crisis management

The unfortunately reality for many mental illness sufferers involves fighting their battle alone. Their support network vanished as struggles continued, or it never existed at all. When a person experiences an acute psychiatric crisis, they typically find themselves hospitalized or imprisoned. Our society hasn’t figured out how to appropriately handle these crises and funnels them to a facility based on geography, not psychiatric preparedness.

But Delaware offers a bit of hope through its Department of Health and Social Services’ Recovery Response Center. The 24-hour center mimics a “living room” setting and family-oriented staff, as if walking into the cozy home of friends or family. At the center, those in crisis obtain personalized evaluation and care through psychiatric staff, clinicians, and social workers — many of which have experienced their own mental health struggles and can relate to patients on a personal level.

The primary goals of the center include reducing the number of patients entering hospital emergency rooms and to play a significant role in establishing the patient’s long-term recovery plan. Through the center, DHSS hopes to increase treatment efficacy while relieving the local hospital and law enforcement burden by streamlining the crisis management process.

— Embrace hope.

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Rebounz: a start-up with a mission to instill hope in people experiencing mental health struggles around self-worth, grief or uncertainty. www.rebounz.com Want to receive updates? Join our mailing list.