It is widely documented that psychological distress is negatively associated with social networks involvement. However, despite the theoretical postulations that social networks are crucial for alleviating psychological distress, no study has yet empirically confirmed the causality of this relationship. Thus, we used the random-effects generalized least squares method to investigate the effect of one- and two-year lagged values for involvement in social networks on psychological distress. Nine years of longitudinal data were extracted from a nationally representative survey in Japan (“The Longitudinal Survey of Middle-aged and Older Persons”). We utilized the Kessler 6 (K6) score to measure psychological distress among 15,242 respondents aged 50–59 years in the baseline year (2005), and stratified participants into three layers of social networks: inner (well-established friendship ties and participating in hobby activates), intermediary (neighborly ties), and outer (involvement in community activities). We found highly significant and negative associations between all three layers and K6 scores, with the strongest association being for the inner layer. We further observed that one-year lagged involvement in the inner and intermediary layers led to significantly lower K6 scores. However, the protective influences of social networks generally diminished over time. In addition, the protective influences of social network involvement on psychological distress were stronger for women than for men. Furthermore, involvement in social networks was especially important for improving mental health among people with psychological distress. These findings would be important for policymaking to prevent mental health deterioration among middle-aged adults in Japan.
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