The importance of family and community support for the health of HIV-affected populations in Southern Africa:What do we know and where to from here?
Purpose. Informal family and community support deriving from social relations can play an important role in protecting mental and physical health in resource-scarce contexts and may help facilitate health service access and uptake. Yet, to date, there has been surprisingly little empirical research investigating the role of social support as a resource for health in HIV-affected Southern African communities, despite the known importance of social connectedness, high rates of physical and mental health conditions, and existing ‘treatment gaps’.
Methods. This paper brings together and discusses findings of multiple linked analyses, from the first large-scale explanatory sequential mixed methods research investigating the relationship between social support and health with caregiver populations in HIV-endemic South Africa.
Results. Overall, findings highlight the protective role of social support for caregiver mental health, the multiple perceived psychological and behavioural mechanisms possibly explaining the relationship between social support and both mental and physical health, and gender differences in the provision, effects, and availability of support.
Conclusions. Drawing from these findings and the broader literature, four potential foci for future research in Southern Africa are identified and discussed, as are implications for research design and methodologies. These involve achieving a better understanding of the following: The pathways and processes explaining common and differential effects of social support across different population groups; the potential protective role of social support for physical health; and the role of factors such as gender and social and cultural norms in shaping the relationship between social support and health.
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