Social relationships are protective of mental health for all people. People with mental illness are, however, less likely to have such protective relationships, and when their social links are poor their recovery is compromised and they are at heightened risk of relapse (Pevalin & Goldberg 2003). People with mental illness can become isolated at all the levels by which social connection is derived—intimate relationships, family, friends, workplace and leisure acquaintances, and community contacts. People with histories of hospitalisation are at particularly high risk of social isolation, and have poorer social relationships than those who have been treated through primary care (Kent et al 1995).

People have different social needs across the course of their lifespan. For example, it is especially important for younger people to be able to mix with their peers as the establishment of good peer relationships is fundamental to wellbeing in adolescence. Yet, peer relationships can also be a risk factor if peers are involved in anti-social behaviours or harmful alcohol and other drug use.

You need to re-establish social contacts that aren't the same as they were in the past, for instance you couldn't have bad habits or drug taking if you're used to that kind of culture. That kind of culture isn't going to help your mental health so you will need to break off those - the marijuana and whatever else is circling around – and build up relationships with people that don't have that and that's where peer support can be effective, but it is a matter of recognizing that this person is no longer going to be helping my wellbeing and I'm going to have to say, "Well, I'm not going to have anything to do with that", or change some relationships so that you're not dependent on that. —Consumer
The lack of an intimate relationship is major risk factor in adulthood, and the experience of separation or divorce adversely affects wellbeing (Richards et al 1997). Adults whose marriages have not survived, and those who have lost their employment, lack important sources of social support. For older adults, loss through death becomes a significant risk factor for mental health.

Women tend to be involved in more relationships than men throughout their lives, generally having multiple relationships of different types, and consequently, their need for social skills is greater (Mowbray, Nicholson & Bellamy 2003). However, it is important to note that while good social relationships are protective of mental health, family (and other) relationships can at times be conflicted or even dangerous. For women, in particular, the potential for violence in partner relationships is a risk factor that must be recognised.

Rebuilding social relationships is essential to maintaining wellness and preventing relapse. Peer support and self-help groups are invaluable in this regard, because they provide a safe and non-judgemental place for social interaction (Nikkel 1994). After an episode of mental illness, some people need to rebuild their basic social skills as their symptoms can interfere with these. Self-help groups can provide a safe environment in which to do this. Support groups help in many diverse ways, but importantly they provide access to people with shared experiences, a sense of belonging, role models and inspiration (see Pepper 2003). Throughout the consultations the importance of social relationships, derived from self-help groups, as well as from family and other sources, was repeatedly emphasised as essential for relapse prevention.

I don't know what I'd do without the support of the others in the group. When I get to the point where I feel like I can't cope, they come to the rescue in so many ways. Sometimes it's just a phone call, sometimes they bring over something to eat. It makes all the difference. It stops me thinking that I'm the only one with this and I find new energy to keep going on. —Carer