The protective power of belonging to social groups

Having a strong identification with a social group, such as a choir or a sports club, can help protect you against mental illness.

That is the finding of two studies by Professor Fabio Sani and colleagues from the University of Dundee that are being presented today, Friday 5 December 2014, at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology in Glasgow.

Professor Sani and his colleagues investigated the link between group identification – one’s sense of belonging to a group, coupled with one’s sense of commonality with in-group members – and mental health. They hypothesised that the greater the number of groups one identifies with, the lower one’s likelihood of experiencing mental health problems.

The first study, which involved a community sample of 1814 adults, assessed identification with family, local community, and a social group chosen by the participant, as well as self-reported depression. The researchers also checked medical records to assess whether each participant had been prescribed antidepressants in the last six months.

The second study involved 1111 Scottish high school pupils, and assessed whether or not each participant identified with their family, their friends, and their school. Participants were also asked to indicate the extent to which they were experiencing symptoms of psychological distress.

In the first study, Scottish adults who did not identify with any group were found to be almost 20 times more likely to be depressed, and three times more likely to have been prescribed antidepressants in the last six months than those who identified with their family, their local community, and the social group of their choosing.

In the second study, high school pupils who did not identify with any group were found to be four times more likely to experience psychological distress than pupils who identified with their family, their friends and their school.

These results remained even after taking account of participants’ age, gender, socio-economic status and, importantly, the intensity of their interpersonal contact with members of the groups under consideration.

Professor Fabio Sani says: “Group life may shield people from depression. However, this can only happen when one subjectively identifies with in-groups. In addition, the more groups we identify with, the better our mental health is likely to be.”