Social support and social structure: a descriptive epidemiology

J Health Soc Behav. 1994 Sep;35(3):193-212.


Despite a very large and growing literature demonstrating the significance of social support for health and well-being, surprisingly little is known about the social distribution of this crucial resource. This paper presents data on the distribution of social support and support resources across social class, marital status, age and gender, with the aims of contributing toward an understanding of the impact of social structures on processes of social support, and of assessing the hypothesis that epidemiological variations in mental health arise partially from social support differences. The epidemiology of perceived social support was found to correspond closely to the epidemiology of psychological distress and disorder. The single exception involved gender, where a positive rather than negative relationship was observed, with women demonstrating the highest levels of both social support and psychological distress. The observed patterns of variation in social support link this significant adaptive resource to one's locations in the social structure and reinforce the conclusion that it represents a promising intervention target. The practical importance of these results, however, are not matched by theoretical significance. Except in the case of marital status, our findings largely discount the hypothesis that the social distribution of mental health is partially attributable to social support differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology
  • Epidemiologic Factors*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marital Status
  • Mental Health*
  • Middle Aged
  • Ontario / epidemiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Support*
  • Socioeconomic Factors