SPOKANE, Wash. — Social support and sense of community can improve one’s sense of health and well being, whereas social isolation is associated with increased stress, illness and health risks, according to a wide body of health research. Faculty researchers at Washington State University Spokane are partnering with community organizations to match isolated families with volunteer family friends, and study the effects on their health.

The Family Friend Project is a collaborative between community nonprofits, community churches and researchers at WSU Spokane. The program works with churches and other referral sources to obtain volunteer family friends, who are then matched with low-income single-parent families and other individuals and families who feel socially isolated. Participants are asked to form and maintain a relationship for at least a year. They receive training on topics such as communication skills and have opportunities to interact with others involved in the project.

WSU Spokane researchers monitor the health of participants. According to lead researcher Melissa Ahern, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of health policy and administration at WSU Spokane, “Over time, the social support networks formed through the project should lower stress and improve the mental and physical health of those participating. There’s a well-established body of research indicating that reducing social isolation and improving social support improves your health.” The project will contribute to research by measuring the impact of this type of community intervention on people’s health. Project researchers will also study how to structure this collaborative approach to have the greatest impact on people’s health.

Ahern’s own research, conducted with colleagues at WSU Spokane, finds evidence of a significant relationship between sense of community and health status. Her work has been published in journals such as “Medical Care and Social Science and Medicine”. In this project, she and colleagues Michael Hendryx, Ph.D., associate professor of health policy and administration, and Dennis Dyck, Ph.D., director of the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research and Training and associate dean for research at WSU Spokane, will measure functional health status, stress levels, social connection and disease states of participants in the program.

Several recent studies show that regular church attendance and involvement with a church community contributes to people’s sense of community, health and well-being. As a result, one goal of the project is to match people based on their denominational preference and thereby give people an opportunity to become involved in a church community of their choice.

This is an optional component of the program, and the project does not exclude those who prefer not to attend a church. For participants who choose to become involved in a church community, past research suggests that the additional social support system provided by the church will also contribute to improved mental and physical health. This project will allow researchers to compare participants who do and do not choose to participate in a church community to examine possible differences in outcomes.

The Spokane Council on Ecumenical Ministries, St. David’s Episcopal Church, Westminster Congregational Church, St. Aloysius Catholic Church, the Unitarian-Universalist Church, Temple Beth Shalom and the Valley Open Bible Church are among the churches and organizations participating in the program. Community centers, transitional living centers, the Life Skills Program at Spokane Falls Community College, the Parish Nurses Association, women’s clinics and other church congregations also serve as referral sources.

All participants are screened to make sure they are mature enough and motivated enough to work at a relationship for a year. People with serious mental health problems, active substance abuse problems and involvement in violent relationships do not qualify for inclusion in this program, and are referred to more appropriate programs in the community. Washington State Patrol background checks and reference checks are included to ensure the safety of all participants.

Funding for initial phases to plan and test various approaches to the project comes from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ($80,000) and The New Priorities Foundation ($21,000). The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. The New Priorities Foundation is a regional philanthropy in eastern Washington that focuses on improving health and well being for vulnerable citizens.

Note to editor: See additional background information on the Family Friend Project at http://www.wsunews.wsu.edu/releases4/bc118.htm.