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Social support key to reducing mental health issues in young adults

Strong social networks may be essential for reducing mental health issues in young adults, according to new research.

The findings come from researchers at McGill University in Canada who found that family and friends may act as a safeguard against depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.

The team analysed data from an over 20-year-old study called the Quebec Longitudinal Study on Child Development, which followed children from their birth in 1997 and 1998.

Once participants reached 19 years of age, researchers recorded their perceived level of social support as well as any mental health issues they had experienced.

The study found that young adults with strong social support networks experienced substantially lower rates of both severe depression (47% reduction) and anxiety (22% reduction) compared with those with less social support.

Suicidal thoughts and attempts were also significantly affected by support perception – those with a strong social network were at a 40% decreased risk of both.

"Our study shows that even in cases where people previously experienced mental health problems, social support was beneficial for mental health later on," says Professor Geoffroy, Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill. "We discovered potential benefits of promoting and leveraging social support as a means to protect the mental health of young adults, even in individuals who experienced mental health problems at an earlier developmental stage in life."

The new findings come as young adult mental health is a cause for growing concern during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a recent poll, more than half of young adult students have experienced a deterioration in their mental health during 2020, a substantial driver of which was found to be the significant difference between what they expected their time at university to be like, versus what it actually has been.

A key part of university life is of course social networking and without the ability to do so, concerns were already present over how isolation from friends and family could impact the mental health of students.

The poll's findings have since led to calls for more funding for existing university support services.

Regarding COVID-19, the researchers note that the findings come from data recorded before the pandemic began and therefore may not reflect present trends.

"Our study was conducted before the current COVID-19 pandemic, so we do not know whether our results will apply in the current context," said Sara Scardera, co-author of the study. "However, in a 'normal' context, youth who perceived that they had someone to rely on reported better mental health outcomes.

"We believe that is beneficial to offer help to those in need, and to make sure your friends know that they can count on you."

The Quebec Longitudinal Study on Child Development is ongoing and will collect the next batch of data on mental health once participants reach the age of 23.

The study will also analyse the effect of different types of social support – e.g. friends or family – on young adult mental health.

To read the full study, click here.


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