The Importance of Social Support for Sexual Minority Men

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We are now at a point in time when scientists and governments talk about “an epidemic of loneliness” in Western countries, including in Canada. Despite the importance of loneliness, this topic remains relatively under-studied, with most research focused on the elderly and chronically ill and less work addressing other vulnerable populations, like minority groups. In particular, sexual minority men may be especially vulnerable to feelings of loneliness due to the fact that, cross-culturally, men tend to report more loneliness [1] and due to their negative experiences with homophobic and biphobic stigma [2-3]. Because identity-related stigma can negatively impact connectedness to peer groups and community (two recognised sources of coping and resilience), sexual minority men may be particularly vulnerable to developing a sense of loneliness and isolation [3].

Humans have a strong need to feel a sense of belonging; we need to form and maintain interpersonal relationships that are positive, long-lasting, and significant in our lives [4]. When our belongingness needs are not met we are more likely to experience negative outcomes such as poor health and less happiness, [5]. In contrast, when we believe we have people in our lives who care about us, we benefit! Benefits can include improved immune function [6] and increased capacity to cope with chronic stressors [7] – including sexual minority stress (a form of chronic stress related to experiences of heterosexist stigma).

In some of my recent work [8], I explored the role of social support in the sexual and mental health of sexual minority men in Canada. Using data from the Engage Cohort Study, I found that sexual minority men who felt they had more supportive relationships in their lives were more likely to engage in HIV prevention behaviours (like talking about HIV with new sex partners, getting testing for HIV and other STIs, or avoiding higher risk sex). I also found that feeling they had social support in their lives was linked with these men scoring lower on measures of sexual minority stress, depression, and anxiety. 

But social support didn’t only have a direct association with health behaviours and mental well-being, there was also a buffering effect! Among the men in this sample, higher sexual minority stress was linked with increased odds of engaging in risk sex and with higher anxiety and depression scores. But having a stronger sense that they had sources of social support helped buffer against the effects of sexual minority stress, resulting in lower odds of risk sex and lower anxiety and depression scores for these men! 

This work provides some great preliminary evidence of how important social connection can be when it comes to the health and well-being of sexual minority men. This shows us how critical it is to find “your people”, whether it’s your family of choice, your family by blood/law, or your group of friends and peers. Finding places and groups where you feel a sense of belonging and reaching out to give the same to others can make a big difference for your own health and the health and well-being of our communities. 

Contributed by Shayna Skakoon-Sparling


References:

  1. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, 110066.
  2. Kuyper, L., & Fokkema, T. (2010). Loneliness among older lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults: The role of minority stress. Archives of Sexual Behavior39(5), 1171-1180.
  3. Mereish, E. H., & Poteat, V. P. (2015). A relational model of sexual minority mental and physical health: The negative effects of shame on relationships, loneliness, and health. Journal of Counseling Psychology62(3), 425.
  4. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin117(3), 497.
  5. Gere, J., & MacDonald, G. (2010). An update of the empirical case for the need to belong. Journal of Individual Psychology66(1), 93-115.
  6. LeRoy, A. S., Murdock, K. W., Jaremka, L. M., Loya, A., & Fagundes, C. P. (2017). Loneliness predicts self-reported cold symptoms after a viral challenge. Health Psychology, 36(5), 512.
  7. John-Henderson, N. A., Stellar, J. E., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Francis, D. D. (2015). Socioeconomic status and social support: Social support reduces inflammatory reactivity for individuals whose early-life socioeconomic status was low. Psychological Science, 26(10), 1620-1629.
  8. Skakoon-Sparling, S., Berlin, G., Lachowsky, N. J., Moore, D. M., Cox, J., Apelian, H., Sang, J., Grace, D., Lambert, G., & Hart, T. A. (2021). The impact of perceived social support on the sexual health of gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. Health Psychology  https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0001131.  Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34928633.

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