Disentangling the directions of associations between structural social capital and mental health: Longitudinal analyses of gender, civic engagement and depressive symptoms

Evelina Landstedt, Ylva B Almquist, Malin Eriksson, Anne Hammarström
Social Science & Medicine 2016, 163: 135-43
The present paper analysed the directions of associations between individual-level structural social capital, in the form of civic engagement, and depressive symptoms across time from age 16-42 years in Swedish men and women. More specifically, we asked whether civic engagement was related to changes in depressive symptoms, if it was the other way around, or whether the association was bi-directional. This longitudinal study used data from a 26-year prospective cohort material of 1001 individuals in Northern Sweden (482 women and 519 men). Civic engagement was measured by a single-item question reflecting the level of engagement in clubs/organisations. Depressive symptoms were assessed by a composite index. Directions of associations were analysed by means of gender-separate cross-lagged structural equation models. Models were adjusted for parental social class, parental unemployment, parental health, and family type at baseline (age 16). Levels of both civic engagement and depressive symptoms were relatively stable across time. The model with the best fit to data showed that, in men, youth civic engagement was negatively associated with depressive symptoms in adulthood, thus supporting the hypothesis that involvement in social networks promotes health, most likely through provision of social and psychological support, perceived influence, and sense of belonging. Accordingly, interventions to promote civic engagement in young men could be a way to prevent poor mental health for men later on in life. No cross-lagged effects were found among women. We discuss this gender difference in terms of gendered experiences of civic engagement which in turn generate different meanings and consequences for men and women, such as civic engagement not being as positive for women's mental health as for that of men. We conclude that theories on structural social capital and interventions to facilitate civic engagement for health promoting purposes need to acknowledge gendered life circumstances.


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