Post by Elisa Guma
Increased perceived social support can buffer against depressive symptoms in individuals with long-term physical disability, while decreased support can worsen symptoms.
What's the science?
Perceived social support is an important factor for maintaining good mental health in vulnerable groups, such as those with long-term physical disability, or in an aging population. Cross-sectional studies have identified a strong association between lack of social support and depression in these groups. However, no longitudinal studies — with comprehensive measures of social support — have been conducted to investigate the association between perceived social support and mental health outcomes in those with disabilities. In Disability and Health Journal, de la Vega and colleagues assess the relationship between perceived social support and depressive symptoms in individuals with long-term physical disability including multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, and muscular dystrophy.
How did they do it?
Participants with one of three different chronic physical disabilities (spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy) were asked to complete surveys every 12-15 months over the course of a 6 year period. The sample used for this study (n=475) included survey responses two time points, spaced 6 years apart. In addition to basic demographic information (age, sex, ethnicity, diagnosis, household income, marital status, education), the severity of depressive symptoms was recorded (using the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System), as was the perceived social support (using the Multi-dimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support).
With these data, the authors intended to ask whether a change in perceived social support over the two timepoints was associated with a change in depressive symptomatology. However, for a large majority of the sample, little change in perceived social support over the 6-year period as observed. Therefore, the authors identified a subgroup of individuals for which social support did change in order to investigate this relationship.
What did they find?
The majority of individuals enrolled in the study reported no differences in social support over the 6 year follow up period, with no differences in social support between the three diagnosis groups, or between men and women. Interestingly, the subset of individuals who did report changes in perceived social support also reported changes in depressive symptoms. Those that experience increased social support reported decreased depressive symptoms, while those that reported decreased social support reported increases in depressive symptoms.
What's the impact?
This study provides support for the association between social support and mental health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable individuals suffering from chronic physical disability. These findings suggest that providing social support to individuals struggling with chronic disability may be an important buffer against negative mental health outcomes. Investigating the provision of social support as a possible treatment intervention for individuals struggling with disability, as well as an aging population, or isolated groups will be an important avenue for future research.