Strong Social Networks May Decrease Risk Of Suicide, Especially Among Middle-Aged Women

Social networks
Staying connected can seriously boost women's mental health. Tanja Cappell, CC BY-SA 2.0

Suicide is among the top 10 leading causes of death of middle-aged men and women, just behind malignant neoplasms, unintentional injury, and heart disease. But could social networks serve as a kind-of saving grace? A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests they can.

Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston analyzed existing data collected from 72,607 women aged 46 to 71. The study had followed women’s social relationships starting in 1992 up until death or June 2010. The social index for relationships included seven items: marital status, social network size, frequency of contact with social ties, and participation in religions or other social groups.

By the end of the study, researchers reported 43 suicides. Nearly half of these suicides were poisoning by solid or liquid substances — the others were either by firearms, explosives, strangulation and suffocation. What’s more is women who were socially isolated were more likely to commit suicide than women who were more socially integrated. Most of the women in the study did rank high for social integration, but women who were socially isolated were more likely to be full-time employees, less physically active, and more prone to drinking alcohol and coffee, as well as smoking.

A stronger social network has widely been believed to be a marker for great health — joining a group alone has been found to boost confidence and self-esteem. But the results of the present study suggest an intervention among those feeling this isolation could lower this risk for suicide. If not to strengthen existing social networks, then to teach men and women how to create new ones.

"The long tradition of sociological research that is devoted to suicide, or that explores the influences that contribute to mental disorders, challenges us to develop new, more nuanced research designs that truly address the 'social' in the biopsychosocial medical model, even as we have been enhancing the depth and breadth of 'bioresearch,'" Dr. Eric D. Caine, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, N.Y., said in an accompanying editorial.

Caine added this social link has “has always been the weakest link of this paradigm and needs invigoration.” He’s hoping the continued evidence of the impact social relationships can have on mental health will finally forage the way for others to begin testing and implementing preventive interventions.

Source: Tsai AC, et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015.

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