Social Support Primer

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

– Aristotle

Since the early times, social relationships have been seen as integral to being human. Classic psychological theories – from Freud’s idea of how the development of personality structures are influenced by parental interactions, to Bandura’s assertion that our behaviours may also be shaped by observing people significant to us, also discuss the important role that social relationships play in human behaviour and mental health. There was also Bowlby positing that social attachments are basic needs.

It is no wonder why social support, a construct closely intertwined with social relationships, is usually associated with health and well-being. This, of course, is backed by studies since the 1970s when empirical investigations on social support started to gain ground (see Cobb, 1976; Gore, 1978; Kaplan, Cassel, & Gore, 1977). That social support is generally beneficial is still supported by current research; although the complexity of social support as a construct is now starting to be recognised.

Definition of the social support comes in several forms. Cohen, Gottlieb, & Underwood (2000) defines it as “any process through which social relationships might promote health and well-being” (p. 4). Hobfoll (as cited in Kaniasty & Norris, 2009, p. 176) defines it as “social interactions that provide individuals with actual assistance and embed them into a web of social relationships perceived to be loving, caring, and readily available in times of need.” Some researchers also emphasise that social support is a product of social interactions from non-formal sources (e.g., friends, family members).

Social support is seen as a crucial element in posttraumatic recovery. There is evidence showing that social connectedness and caring social interactions are strong predictors of positive psychological outcomes after a traumatic exposure (see Hobfoll et al., 2007). In the aftermath of disasters, social support interventions also offer promising results. Most of the evidence, however, comes from the survivors; empirical evidence on first responders still waits to be established.