Introduction This study investigates whether the social support networks (SSNs) of older Europeans exert a causal influence on their mental health. The manner in which social support influences mental health has been characterised by two psychological models. The main effects hypothesis predicts that individuals with strong social support experience higher levels of well-being than those with weak social support. According to the stress-buffering hypothesis, it is only upon exposure to unexpected negative life events that individuals with weaker levels of social support are adversely affected.
Methods The dataset used comprises over 60 000 observations from adults aged 50+, from two waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (2004 & 2006), including the EURO-D scale of depressive mood. Cluster analysis of objective criteria such as proximity of family members and support-exchange identified four SSN types: self-contained; spouse-reliant; family-dependent; and family and community integrated. Networks differed in terms of socio-demographic indicators. Personal characteristics were controlled for and standard panel data techniques determined whether omitted variables such as personality were driving the relationship between network type and depressive mood.
Results Among women, weak SSNs were associated with higher EURO-D scores (main effects hypothesis). This relationship appears to be mediated through feelings of loneliness. We found no evidence that network membership either exacerbates or mitigates the effect of negative life events on depressive mood for either gender (buffer hypothesis).
Conclusion Enhanced social support provides a mechanism for alleviating depressive mood, which was found to be mediated through feelings of loneliness.
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