Mental Health Awareness Week – online relationships and social support

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, which took place in May this year, chose to concentrate on the theme of relationships. Keeping in line with this theme Priory wants to explore online relationships and whether they are good for mental health. It is often said that good healthy relationships and socialising help to improve a person's mental health, the Mental Health Foundation states:

"Healthy and supportive relationships reduce the risk of mental ill-health. This Mental Health Awareness Week we are celebrating the connections, the relationships, the people in our lives that add to our wellbeing and protect and sustain our mental health. From family and friends, to colleagues and neighbours; taking notice of those connections that make you feel safe and supported."

But can online relationships fulfil a person in the same way traditional connections can? And what are the advantages of a good social support network?

The internet boom

In 2014 Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures stated 76% of adults, that's 38 million people across the UK, accessed the internet on a daily basis, with 68% of people using a mobile phone or other portable device to access the internet 'on the go'. These figures only appear to be on an upward trajectory, lending weight to the idea that relationships, or keeping in contact with existing friends, are becoming prevailingly online activities. In particular, those aged 16-24 are engaging on social media, creating a generation who see multiple social media outlets as the norm. But is it healthy?

There is much to be said for online relationships. A person is able to seek out like-minded people with similar interests from which they gain stimulating conversation on topics they enjoy. It can also be less stressful revealing more about yourself online due to the emotional disconnect a screen offers or by utilising anonymity. But it is this disconnection that can make opening up to someone online somehow dissatisfying, and therefore rendering the attempt to find a deep and meaningful relationship unsuccessful. This is not to say it is the case for everyone as certain personalities will find they are able to gain the emotional support they need through these means, but it is much less likely than through face-to-face meetings.

Social support

A support network of friends and family offers a parachute to those who are struggling with a mental health problem and it is beneficial to a person's recovery to be able to lean on this support network. But it's also important for those who are feeling run-down, perhaps by family pressures such as looking after children, to know they have help available.

Maintaining a good relationship with your neighbours, for example, is both emotionally nourishing and pragmatic. To have someone available for a chat or a cup of tea, but also someone to lend a hand unloading the car, or carrying the shopping into the house, eases the strain created in everyday life. Studies have proven the link between this type of social support and positive mental health time and again, so take the time to build these relationships. Through creating a network to support each other with the little things we can hopefully help to equip each other with emotional strength when tougher situations arise.

Friendship

Maintaining close friendships is another piece of the good mental health puzzle and one of the most important ones. Friends will listen to your problems and you will listen to theirs, strengthening the idea of a social support network. Friends accept you for who you are; strengths and weaknesses, quirks and habits. It is this that provides the backbone of good mental health: knowing that someone likes and accepts you for you, no disguises. The Mental Health Foundation adds:

"Our friends can keep us grounded and can help us get things in perspective. It is worth putting effort into maintaining our friendships and making new friends. Friends form one of the foundations of our ability to cope with the problems that life throws at us."

It is possible for these types of relationships to develop online, but it essentially comes back to the aforementioned emotional disconnection. Without the necessary emotional link the relationship can be hollow and brittle.

There is also evidence to suggest people who use the internet excessively tend to neglect relationships and responsibilities in the real world, causing greater isolation. Social isolation, which has been linked to depression, can put a strain on any existing friendships and ultimately could result in the breakdown of such relationships.

Online relationships have uses and benefits, but they should not be favoured at the expense of real and meaningful physical interactions with people you care about and who care about you.

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