Geography & Environment Publications

Social Support, Material Circumstance and Health Behaviour: INfluences on Health in First Nation and Inuit Communities of Canada

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Social Science & Medicine

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An expansive literature describes the links between social support and health. Though the bulk of this evidence emphasizes the health-enhancing effect of social support, certain aspects can have negative consequences for health (e.g., social obligations). In the Canadian context, the geographically small and socially interconnected nature of First Nation and Inuit communities provides a unique example through which to explore this relationship. Despite reportedly high levels of social support, many First Nation and Inuit communities endure broad social problems, thereby leading us to question the assumption that social support is primarily health protective. We draw from narrative analysis of interviews with 26 First Nation and Inuit Community Health Representatives to critically examine the health and social support relationship, and the social structures through which social support influences health. Findings indicate that there are health-enhancing and health-damaging properties of the health–social support relationship, and that the negative dimensions can significantly outweigh the positive ones. Social support operates at different structural levels, beginning with the individual and extending toward family and community. These social structures are important as they reinforce an individual's sense of belonging, however, these high-density networks can also exert conformity pressures and social obligations that promote health-damaging behaviours such as domestic violence and smoking. The poor material circumstances that characterize so many First Nation and Inuit communities add another layer of complexity as limited resources can trap individuals within the confines of their immediate social contexts. Research and policy interventions must pay close attention to the social context within which social support, health behaviours and material circumstances interact to influence health outcomes among First Nation and Inuit communities.

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