If we are surrounded by people who love and care for us, all aspects of our physical, emotional and mental health will be more stable, according to a study by Harvard University (2012). This means happiness and good health come from our relationships.
This makes sense, because human beings are “relational beings”. We want and need to belong – to be nurtured and protected by people whom we also care for in turn.
In a supportive environment people feel less alone, less anxious and less fearful of life. In this caring environment, we know how to reach out for support before events, challenges or problems become too overwhelming and we’re able to bounce back from adversity.
So do we need good relationships to underpin our mental health or does good mental health ensure healthy relationships? Which comes first?
The quality of our relationships matter
Everyone has moments when relationships with friends, work colleagues, family or partners can be tricky or problematic for a short period. If things continue to sour or go badly over time, we can become distressed, lonely and disconnected, even when surrounded by people or we feel part of a group.
We know that continuing conflict between adults in a household with children will not only cause stress for the adults, but also negatively affect the children’s well being and normal development.
Close personal relationships ending can have a devastating impact on mental health. Loneliness and isolation are major risks after a relationship breakdown, when older children leave the family home, or following the death of a partner.
This can also happen following the loss of a job and periods of unemployment, when daily, positive and purposeful connections diminish.
Social isolation can be a particularly common experience for older people confronting or dealing with many of these issues all at once.
In situations of domestic violence (DV) when one person uses tactics of fear and intimidation to control another, the victim’s ability to make and sustain positive relationships can be undermined.
DV seriously affects the physical safety and social and mental well being of victims.
Children and young people witnessing violence are affected, and may leave home early before they have the necessary and adequate resources to manage independence.
People who use violence can sometimes have mental health issues and addictive behaviours that need addressing.
The quality of our mental health matters
Just as the way we live and experience our relationships affects mental well being, mental distress, in turn, affects our relationships.
When we struggle with anxiety, depression or mood swings, we often have less interest or energy for our loved ones. We find it harder to participate in activities that connect us and, as a result, find it easier to withdraw into ourselves.
For couples, one person in the relationship may become distant and the balance of mutual support may be lost for a while.
People experiencing mental health issues can feel shame and self-blame, leading to negative thoughts, which act against feelings of closeness and connection.
Safe and healthy relationships with friends, family and work colleagues protect us in times of adversity, change and uncertainty. They also help us recover from illness and despair.
We need good, supportive relationships to maintain our mental health, and good mental health to sustain our relationships. Beautifully, they go hand in hand.