Social and Emotional Support and its Implication for Health

Maija Reblin; Bert N Uchino


Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008;21(2):201-205. 

In This Article


As we learn more about the effectiveness of social support in affecting health outcomes, it becomes appealing to use this information to directly help clinical populations. This may explain why the largest proportion of recent research in social support and health involved interventions, with many focused on chronic disease populations such as patients with cancer.

There are different types of interventions being implemented, many of which include elements of education and understanding, such as within a context of a support group. Support groups may be particularly useful because of the gaps they may fill in the support needs of patients and the experiential similarity within the group. For instance, one qualitative study in cancer-support groups identified the unique role of such groups as sources of available community, information, and acceptance, in contrast to waning support from overburdened family and friends. Additionally, these are situations in which patients can offer support to others, and patients report that belonging to these groups provided an element of support that augmented other network support.[33]

In addition to support groups, some interventions focus on teaching general psychosocial skills and capitalizing on support within existing networks (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy). In one study, caregivers of patients with Alzheimer's disease were enrolled in a randomized intervention trial designed, in part, to teach support-seeking skills. In comparison with a usual-care control group, those who were in the treatment group were better at fostering their emotional ties and were more satisfied with support.[34] This type of intervention has also been shown to work in child patient populations. For instance, children with cystic fibrosis were involved in a randomized intervention trial that educated the children about their disease and taught them relevant social skills. Those in the treatment group improved their quality of life and peer relationships, and decreased their loneliness and the perceived impact of the disease.[35] These findings are especially important because of the potential isolation faced by children in some chronic disease contexts. In another intervention, patients with type 2 diabetes improved their use of social resources and social integration (though perceived support did not change) compared with usual care.[36] Moreover, such changes mediated effects on physical activity, percentage of calories from fat, and blood glucose levels. It should be noted, however, that the use of such general or complex interventions, although successful in altering risk factors,[37,38] does not allow us to conclude which specific component may have been driving the beneficial outcomes.

Of course, the practicality and cost-effectiveness of an intervention are also important considerations. Recent research is examining these issues by focusing on telephone-based and internet-based support interventions. Although no physical health outcomes were measured, one study found that an education and coping intervention over the telephone for patients awaiting lung transplant increased quality of life and lowered depression.[39] Additionally, using a randomized control design, other researchers[40] studied a telephone support group and found it to reduce depression in older caregivers compared with no-intervention control-group caregivers. These data suggest the potential usefulness of alternative support interventions, which may be especially important for those with practical (e.g. transportation), physical (e.g. disability), or social (e.g. anxiety) barriers.


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