Three essays on the relationship between social ties and mental health


Fang, Michael (2019). Three essays on the relationship between social ties and mental health.


A large body of research has documented a link between social ties and mental wellbeing. Indeed, hundreds of studies have shown that individuals with robust ties to their family, friends, and communities live longer, happier, and healthier lives compared to individuals without these same relationships. Despite emerging as one of the most robust associations in the literature, existing research has yet to adequately grapple with issues related to effect heterogeneity, mechanisms, and temporality, thereby limiting our understanding of the full impact of social ties. The overarching goal of this dissertation was to begin addressing these knowledge gaps, utilizing three prominent sociological theories as case studies. In the first empirical chapter, I used data from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) to test the social contagion hypothesis, which posits that social phenomena including affective states can spread among people in close contact. Results from school and grade fixed effects models found compelling support for the hypothesis, as classmates’ depressive symptoms were positively correlated with respondents’ depressive symptoms a year later. This association was especially pronounced for low-SES and Black students and was driven, in part, by the lower level of social support students perceived they had from classmates with depressive symptoms. The second empirical chapter also used the Add Health to reassess the reactivity hypothesis, which suggests that girls may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of interpersonal stress, contributing to gender differences in depressive symptoms. First-difference models found qualified support for this theory: while the association between peer and school-based interpersonal stress and depressive symptoms did not differ by gender, familial interpersonal stress was more strongly related with depressive symptoms for girls. These results suggest that girls may be more sensitive to the influence of social ties, though this tendency may be domain specific rather than universal, as is often implied by the reactivity hypothesis. In the third empirical chapter, I used data from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine whether the impact of marriage on mental well-being becomes stronger over time, as implied by life course theory. Results from marginal structural models showed that increased exposure to marriage during early adulthood was positivelyassociated with mental well-being later in life. These results highlight the need to further consider the length of time social relationships are maintained to more fully understand their impact on health.


Reference Type


Book Title

Public Policy and Sociology


Fang, Michael

Series Author(s)

Bruch, Elizabeth E.

Year Published


Volume Number

ORCID iD: 0000-0003-2849-1780




University of Michigan

Reference ID