Can Your BFF Save Your Life?


Close friendships may help people avoid risky behaviors and save their sanity

We all have that special someone we can talk to about everything from hair to heart murmurs. What you may not have realized, however, is what a vital role friendship actually plays in helping us to maintain our health—and sanity.
Friendship isn’t just about spilling the beans about what happened to so-and-so’s crazy cousin or who’s dating whom now over a couple of Mai Tais. It’s also about soothing the soul through solidarity and keeping each other centered. Sometimes all it takes to survive the crazy life tosses our way is knowing there’s another person out there who’s in your corner, got your back and, when the wild takes a weird turn, always roots for you.
And you’re never too young to start cultivating supportive friendships, as a study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health shows. The study, which examined whether uncontrollable life events, in conjunction with sexual risk taking, were modified by supportive friendships among African-American adolescents, showed that those with low support were more prone to engage in risky behaviors as a stress response.
Another study, from Oregon State University, examined the effects of a friendship-based HIV/STI Prevention Intervention Initiative targeted toward African-American females and concluded that the rates of participating in risky sexual behaviors and engaging in sex with multiple partners decreased sharply, while the rate of routine HIV testing rose.
But friendship benefits folks of all ages. As the song says, “We all need somebody to lean on,” and nowhere is that need more palpably felt than within the African-American community, where families and friendships tend to be much more tightly knit anyway. Not only can sexual health be impacted early by supportive friendships, as the Oregon State study shows, but so, too, can mental health.
There is still a rather strong stigma about mental illness in many African-American circles, and too often serious issues such as depression, which can be just as life threatening as any physical illness, are discounted as being “just another case of the blues.” Instead of turning to mental health professionals, African Americans will often turn to family and the church when feeling down. And although we’re definitely not advocating foregoing professional mental health intervention when necessary, a support structure built on the backs of strong friendships can be a powerful tool when used in tandem with medical help.
Bringing community and spirituality together via prayer groups or meditation circles can raise the benefits of both tremendously, as can tying friendship to specific goals, activities or hobbies. Groups like Black Girls Run, which fosters connections between women who are united by their commonly enjoyed pastime—running—not only facilitate fitness goals, but also supplement those benefits with all the good vibes of a strong friendship.
So the next time you see your girlfriend for drinks, be sure to thank her. She may just be the reason you beat that swine flu last winter!

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