In and out of Our Right Minds: The Mental Health of African American Women

By Diane R. Brown; Verna M. Keith | Go to book overview

13
THE BENEFITS AND COSTS OF SOCIAL SUPPORT
FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN

Beverly A. Gray and Verna M. Keith

African American women play an essential role in the maintenance of complex systems of kin and non-kin networks in the Black community. The provision of social support is a major function of these network systems, and researchers have shown that support, especially emotional support, contributes to the ability of African American women to lead satisfying and emotionally healthy lives (Brown and Gary 1987; Dressier 1991; McAdoo 1980). Social support appears to be especially salient for maintaining good mental health during times of great stress and turmoil. Indeed, studies of African Americans generally (Dressier 1991), and African American women specifically (Brown and Gary 1987), show that ongoing life problems and stressful life events are less detrimental to psychological wellbeing when support levels are high. Voluntary organizations, especially the church, are also an important part of social networks and are a major source of social support (Taylor and Chatters 1988), especially among Black women. It is well established that Black women tend to be more heavily involved in church activities and other organizations than Black men are (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990). Further, studies have linked religious involvement to feelings of emotional well-being (e.g., Ellison and Gay 1990), although some variations by age and social class have been reported (Dressier 1991).

Social support, however, can be a double-edged sword, as Neighbors (1997) points out. On the one hand, it can be positive and helpful. On the other hand, it can be negative, harmful, or nonexistent. The negative, and conversely the positive, aspects of social support are a function of the personal characteristics and qualities of the persons who are members of individual social networks (Suls 1982). The size and complexity of many network systems make it likely that the individuals who provide support at any given time are the very same individuals who are the source of stress at some later time. Consequently, researchers increasingly recognize that social relationships have costs as well

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