It’s Complicated: Healthy relationships and mental health

Charlotte Lang

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series that explores various issues related to college relationships and how they impact students’ mental health.

In a month when romance is a popular topic, it can be important to recognize the effects relationships can have on mental health. Healthy relationships — platonic, familial, romantic, sexual or otherwise — can lead to a healthier mental state.

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“Healthy relationships have many positive impacts on people’s mental health,” said Reid Trotter, director of Counseling Services at the Colorado State University Health Network. “Healthy relationships are linked to reduced stress via reduction of cortisol levels in the body, a greater sense of purpose, better overall health and even a longer life.”

Trotter said healthy relationships have such a positive impact on these things because people are wired to connect with others.

“Humans have evolved to live in groups, and a sense of belonging is considered a core human need,” Trotter said. “Given our predisposition to connect, humans have great capacity for empathy, love and compassion.”

Trotter said this capacity for connection and belonging can be applied to all types of relationships, including friendships, family and intimate relationships.

In the U.S., we talk a lot about independence and really uplift independence as the end-all-be-all, but people really thrive with other healthy human connections.” -Elizabeth Amoa-Awuah, assistant director of educational programs, WGAC

Elizabeth Amoa-Awuah, assistant director of educational programs at the Women and Gender Advocacy Center, said people do best when there’s healthy human connections in their lives.

Amoa-Awuah said such connections don’t simply help the individual. Support and interdependence with others help entire groups thrive.

“In the U.S., we talk a lot about independence and really uplift independence as the end-all-be-all, but people really thrive with other healthy human connections,” Amoa-Awuah said.

Amoa-Awuah said these connections often lead to more general support for everyone involved, which, in turn, leads to better mental health.

Signs of a healthy relationship are more than the lack of unhealthy traits, Amoa-Awuah said.

“It shouldn’t be ‘I know it’s healthy because I know it’s not a problem,'” Amoa-Awuah said. “It should be ‘I know it’s healthy because I’m also happy and that I’m thriving as a result of this bond with this person’ — again, whether that’s platonic or romantic.”

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The most direct way to understand the impact of a relationship is to ask — from a place of caring — the person or people involved. This not only allows space for the person to discuss the relationship, but shows that you care about the person or people involved, which can often lead to improving your own relationship with them.” -Reid Trotter, director, Counseling Services, CSU Health Network

The WGAC maintains a webpage that explains important traits of a healthy relationship, such as communication and boundaries. It also explains what an unhealthy relationship can look like.

Trotter said a few important aspects of a healthy relationship include a strong sense of trust, open and consistent communication, healthy boundaries, a contribution from everyone involved and a sense of respect for each other.

“These aspects can look different based on a variety of factors that could be considered broadly as values that differ due to culture and/or community,” Trotter said.

When it comes to looking at a relationship from the outside, it can be tricky for people around a relationship to understand the impact on those involved, Trotter said. 

“The key piece is to avoid making assumptions,” Trotter said. “The most direct way to understand the impact of a relationship is to ask — from a place of caring — the person or people involved. This not only allows space for the person to discuss the relationship, but shows that you care about the person or people involved, which can often lead to improving your own relationship with them.”

Charlotte Lang can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @chartrickwrites.