Many of us know from our day-to-day lives the impact that relationships can have on our mental health – both good and bad. And at Relate we know from our clinical experience, as well as wider research evidence, that relationships are vital to our wellbeing. It is excellent, therefore, that Mental Health Awareness Week this year focuses on the importance of friends, partners and families.

The evidence is strong. Recognised experts in the field have observed that: “social connections, including marriage, of course, but not limited to that, are among the most robust correlates of subjective wellbeing. [...] In fact, people themselves report that good relationships with family members, friends or romantic partners — far more than money or fame— are prerequisites for their own happiness.”[i]

It is increasingly recognised by policy-makers as well as researchers that our wellbeing and the quality of our relationships are inextricably linked. The 2008 international Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress counted social connections and relationships among its eight recommended core components for measuring national wellbeing,[ii] and in the UK the 2014 Commission on Wellbeing and Policy similarly noted that across the world, the quality of home life – which is ultimately based on family relationships – is a universal ingredient of life satisfaction.[iii] The Office for National Statistics also identifies relationships as a key domain that influences wellbeing[iv] and includes satisfaction with family life, social life, and the extent to which people have a spouse, family member, or friend to rely on in its national wellbeing measures.[v]

Just as good relationships are key to good wellbeing, poor quality relationships are risk factors for mental health. Research shows that relationship distress is linked to depression and anxiety,[vi] and people who live in distressed and troubled relationships are three times as likely to suffer from mood disorders (for example depression) as people who do not experience such relationship distress.[vii] Studies also suggest that over 60% of people with depression attribute relationship problems as the main cause,[viii] and indicate that treatment of relationship distress may alleviate up to 30% of cases of major depression.[ix]

Earlier this year, the NHS accepted a new five year vision for mental health, which said that prevention of mental health problems must include a focus on relationships. This is really encouraging; despite the evidence that healthy relationships can prevent, reduce and delay the effects of long-term health conditions, they have received little attention in health policy or strategy.

But while other areas of the plan are well developed, so far the government and NHS have failed to spell out how they plan to support our relationships. The Taskforce report (rightly) noted that mental health prevention includes supporting relationships and this is not the remit of the NHS alone—but then doesn’t recognise where the NHS could take leadership on this issue, or build relationships into the cross-government recommendations on prevention. There is no shortage of options government could take to support the formation, maintenance, and protection of good quality relationships. We have identified ways that the NHS could do more to support relationships as core determinants of wellbeing in our report The Best Medicine and identified the cross-government action that is needed in All Together Now – a 2025 Vision for Relationship Support.

This summer the government will publish a plan setting out how they plan to deliver this five year vision for mental health. Relate is calling on the Minister responsible to make sure it includes concrete steps to promote healthy relationships, which the Taskforce report acknowledges are so essential for mental health and wellbeing.

Please join us, and mark Mental Health Awareness Week by asking Alistair Burt to trust the facts, not fate, and support everyone’s mental health by investing in relationships.

[i] Helliwell, J. & Putnam, R. (2004), The social context of well-being, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, London

[ii] Stiglitz, J., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J-P., (2009) Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress

[iii] O’Donnell, G., Deaton, A., Durand, M., Halpern, D. & Layard, R. (2014) Wellbeing and policy. Legatum Institute

[vi] Whisman M. (2001) The association between depression and marital distress. In Beach, S. Marital and Family Processes in Depression: A Scientific Foundation for Clinical Practice. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 3-24; Conger, R. D., & Elder Jr, G. H. (1994) Families in troubled times: The Iowa youth and families project. Families in troubled times: Adapting to change in rural America, 3-19

[vii] Whisman, M.A., Uebelacker, L. A. (2003) Comorbidity of Relationship Distress and Mental and Physical Health Problems. In Snyder, D. K., Whisman, M. A. (eds.) Treating Difficult Couples, Guilford Press

[viii] O’Leary, K., Riso, L. and beach, R. (1990) Attributions about the marital discord/depression link and therapy outcome, Behaviour therapy, 21(4), 413-422; Rounsaville, B., Weissman, M., Prusoff, B. and Herceg-Baron, R. (1979) Marital disputes and treatment outcomes in depressed women. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 20(5), 483-490

[ix] Whisman, M. A. & Bruce, M. L. (1999) Marital dissatisfaction and incidence of major depressive episode in a community sample. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108, 674-678