Positive social relationships are known to mitigate the negative effects of stress on mental health. However, the direction of association between social resources and mental health remains unclear, and it is not known whether higher than average levels of social resources confer additional benefits, in the short and longer term.
To investigate the concurrent and longitudinal contribution of higher levels of social resources in reducing the risk of mental health symptoms after exposure to stress at age 45, and to identify life-course precursors of mid-life social resources.
The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is a prospective birth cohort of over 17 000 births in 1958. We tested concurrent and longitudinal associations between different levels of social resources at age 45 and mental health symptoms among individuals exposed to stress and verified whether prior mental health symptoms (age 42) explained these associations. We also tested a range of child, family and adult precursors of mid-life social resources.
Higher than average levels of social resources were required to confer benefits to mental health among individuals exposed to high stress levels, both concurrently at age 45 and in the longer term at age 50. In general, these associations were not attributable to prior mental health symptoms. Key predictors of mid-life social resources included evidence of early sociability.
Having a broad network of social ties and better personal support helps individuals withstand exposure to higher levels of stress. Given that sociable children had better mid-life social resources, early intervention may benefit individuals' social resources later in life.
Declaration of interest