Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence

  Impact Of Social Support On Women's Health: A Literature Review


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The Executive Summary of this report is also available online in French language.

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Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence
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The research and publication of this study were funded by the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE). The PWHCE is financially supported by the Centre of Excellence for Women's Health Program, Bureau of Women's Health and Gender Analysis, Health Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the PWHCE or the official policy of Health Canada.

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C. Alarie

Executive Summary

Help, protect, assist - these are all verbs associated with social support. Today, the concept of social support is being studied more and more and comes into play in various forms in people's day-to-day lives, in connection with helping them improve and tolerate their state of physical and mental health. Social support is examined in relation to women, because the latter constitute the majority clientele of health and social services. Where study of the concept of social support is concerned, impact on women's health needs to be examined more. Therefore, it seems appropriate to inventory the most recent works in French (1980 to date) on this subject.

In relation to various problems and life situations, the forms of social support are analysed and the negative or positive impacts are identified. The transition to parenthood, being the wife of a member of the armed forces, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, use of alcohol and drugs, family and conjugal violence, Francophone women living in minority environments, equity, conjugal relations, being a senior, the many roles that women play, mental health, stress, sexual abuse and feminism are all subjects that are studied in this review of the literature. A correlation between these subjects and the impact of the various forms of social support in connection with women's health is developed.

A number of authors define the concept of social support in their own way. In general, social support can be defined as the links that the individual has with significant persons in his or her social entourage; this points to the importance of interactions in interpersonal contact for better mental and physical health. In more concrete terms, social support takes five different forms:

  1. emotional support: refers to the feeling of being loved, emotional concerns, trust and intimacy;
  2. instrumental support (concrete, material and financial assistance;
  3. normative support (strengthening by another of social identity, recognition of value, esteem, communication of expectations and behavioural standards, similarity of values, feelings of belonging to the community or a group;
  4. informational support (cognitive analysis of a situation, advice, referral and locating of resources in environment; and
  5. socializing support (access to new social contacts, recreational activities, accompaniment, amusement).

These forms of support are meant to have a positive impact on women's health, but they can also have negative consequences.


For women making the transition to parenthood, it is emotional support that is the most present and that is the most effective where there health is concerned. However, the impact on women's health can vary, depending on the perception that women have of this form of support. It seems that, for the spouses of men who are in the armed forces, regardless of the form of support received, the problems experienced persist and no impact on their health becomes apparent.

Social policy reflected in such things as the Act Respecting Occupational Health and Safety for pregnant women enables those women to keep their jobs longer, while reducing the risks of miscarriage or premature birth. However, stress at work increases, because there is friction with the women's superiors and colleagues in connection with the arrangements that are made.

Women affected by HIV/AIDS are victims of psychosocial repercussions - for example, isolation, reduced self-esteem, shame, poverty, stigmatization loss of social network and poor self-image- owing to the absence of appropriate resources with respect to their health. With regard to women who have alcohol and drug problems, it is encouraging to see that prevention programs are making it possible for them to be better informed regarding the effects of alcohol and drug use and to improve their self-image, confidence and self-esteem. They are also making it possible to prevent deterioration of physical and mental health problems.

With regard to violence against women, the change in ideologies at the level of government has led to implementation of assistance and support services for women. Services such as the establishment of shelters and group therapy are leading to positive changes in women's self-esteem, confidence and assertiveness. The advent of the feminist approach is enabling women to stop feeling guilty about their situation and is thus promoting their re-empowerment and better expression of their needs.

With regard to minority communities, Francophone women in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario are dealing more with political issues by calling for support from health and social services, with a view to improving their physical and mental health.

With regard to equity, in one of the works surveyed, physical education is considered an educational intervention that promotes empowerment, autonomy, improved quality of life, adoption of a lifestyle and increased self-esteem. However, it has been noted that equity is not taken into consideration in physical education programs at the secondary, college and university levels.

Conjugal relations seem to be a form of support that increases women's ability to use effective coping strategies to handle stress and thus reduce the risks of illness.

For working mothers, it is a combination of various types of support (emotional, normative and instrumental) that has positive impacts on their health.

With regard to stress and women's health, an educational support program allows for a better understanding of the nature of stress, acquisition of new stress management skills, and discovery of social and community resources, while reducing psychological distress.


In mental health, the works studied explain the positive effects that social support can have, in comparison with social support of a medical nature.

A combination of support measures seems to be the winning formula for women who are victims of sexual abuse. To reduce the feelings of fear and anxiety that affect mental health, group intervention applied simultaneously with individual intervention has more beneficial effects on women's health than does the application of only one type of intervention.

Social support is therefore an essential component in improvement of women's physical and mental health. Among other things, social support neutralizes and controls difficult situations experienced by women. Be it in the form of social policy, social programs, the presence of a spouse or family, the impact of social support remains comprehensive. Social support, in all its forms, helps improve women's health.

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