Social support comes in many forms. So are some forms more effective than others?
A recent study by Anthony Lyons, a senior research fellow at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, has found that emotional support packs the biggest punch.
The study, published in Research on Aging on June 19, 2015, drew on data from an national online community survey of 242 gay Australian men. The men were aged 50 years and older and came from a range of socioeconomic and other backgrounds.
Types of social support
The author examined three different types of social support:
- emotional support, such as having someone to talk to about problems.
- belonging support, such as having someone to do things with, and
- tangible support: having someone to provide assistance with everyday tasks.
In addition, the participants indicated:
- whether they lived alone
- if they were in a regular relationship
- number of current friends, and
- if they felt close to the gay community.
Sources of support
The study found that men received support from five main sources:
- relationship partner
- gay friends
- straight friends, and
- community or government agencies, such as a counselor or gay organization.
The findings showed that distress was lower among men who received emotional support or had a sense of belonging.
Also, distress was lower among those with a greater number of close friends and those who received support from gay friends or family.
Not surprisingly, friendship proved to be particularly important. Many of these men first came out when at a time when homosexuality was more stigmatized than it is today in countries like Australia and Canada. Some lost relationships with their families.
In this study, around two-fifths of the men reported little or no support from their families. In contrast, men received a lot of support from friends.
The study revealed no significant links between psychological stress and whether the men were in a regular relationship, living alone or felt connected to the gay community.
Emotional support trumps
The study identified emotional support as the only significant independent factor for psychological distress after other factors were taken into account. Moreover, it did not matter whether the support came from friends, family or others. In short, emotional support or having someone to talk to about problems can make spirits soar.
The author stresses mental health programs for gay men are more likely to be effective if they promote strategies to boost emotional well-being such as helplines and counseling services. He suggests online therapy for men reluctant to use traditional health and social services.