Updated: Nov 20, 2019
The Importance of Community in Mental Health | Mindfulpath
Take a moment to think about this question: how do you maintain your mental health?
First, let’s take a step back and define what mental health is. The World Health Organization (2014) defines mental health “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stressors of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
From that definition, one could argue mental health heavily influences our quality of life. And it makes sense that mental health, just like physical health, needs to be taken care of and maintained.
Perhaps it’s important to also note that a conversation about mental health applies to everyone because, as Erica Ives, LMFT states on a her recent podcast All About Mental Health “mental health is something that everyone has.” We often speak about mental health in connection to mental illness or disorders, however, “mental illness is something that refers to a wide range of actual mental health conditions, so disturbances or disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavioral or a combination of these.” (Ives, 2019) While only some of us suffer from these illnesses or disorders, we all have mental health and a conversation about how to maintain our mental health applies to everyone.
What is community?
Community can be defined in many ways, but when simplified down to its arguably most important element in talking about mental health, I encourage you to think of community as connection. Community is a feeling, and you know it when you have it. The word community is right there in the definition of mental health. Below are three important characteristics of community when thinking about our mental health.
Why is community important to mental health?
Community provides a sense of belonging. At one time or another, perhaps you’ve felt like you don’t fit in; it can be a lonely experience. Community provides a sense of belonging, a group you identify as being a part of. This is different than conforming to be in a group. A true sense of belonging includes the ability for you to feel you are a part of the community as your true self. There is not a feeling that you have to change in order to be a part of the community, but instead you are embraced and appreciated for your unique qualities you bring to the community.
A community provides its members support. Who do you turn to when you need something? Having a community, people you can call on when you need to talk or help with something, can get you through difficult situations that might feel insurmountable alone. Just knowing there are people who support you can benefit your outlook on life. You feel cared for and safe knowing there are people who support you.
In community, people fulfill different roles. Perhaps you’re the friend who enjoys cooking and can be counted on to bring a hot meal over for another struggling with chemo treatments. Or you’re the friend who others know that can call when they need to talk about their struggles. You most likely have several roles. Having purpose gives meaning to life. Others depend on you just like you depend on them.
These are just three elements that community provides. Feelings of true belonging, a sense of support, and purpose in life makes us feel wanted and loved. With so much written about the connections between isolation and loneliness and mental health issues, finding a sense of community is an important piece of taking care of your mental health. Now, the next question might be, this all sounds great, but how do you find a community? Below are three places to begin.
How to find community:
Start with thinking about your interests, what values are important to you, and beliefs that resonate with you.
1. Interests – What do you like to do? Perhaps you enjoy reading and try joining a book club. Or you’ve always wanted to join an indoor soccer team. The possibilities are endless, and you might find it easy to connect with others while doing activities everyone enjoys.
2. Values – What is important to you? This category could include charities or volunteer work. Being of service is rewarding in itself and you can connect with others as well. Community gives back to each other, and this is a way you can start to build up your community.
3. Beliefs – Perhaps you connect with a spiritual practice or religion. Try going to a speaking engagement, introductory class, or Sunday service. Or maybe a political cause speaks to you and you join a group that works towards a goal that’s meaningful to you. Connect with something bigger than you as a way to broaden your community.
Humans crave connection. Feelings of belonging as who you truly are is validating. Knowing there are people who support you and will be there for you when you’re struggling provides a sense of safety. And knowing you’re needed, that you have a purpose that only you can fulfill, reminds you that you are valued. Community provides all of these qualities and more.
Where you find that community is as unique as you are. There is not a one size fits all community. And if you haven’t found a strong sense of community yet, keep trying. The take away is that no matter if your community is big or small, if you see the people who are important to you daily or much less so, finding the people who you connect with is vital for your mental health. And remember, not only are you a part of a community, you are also a part of other’s community as well. As important is it for you to find your community, it’s important for others to have you as a part of their community. We need each other.
Ives, E. (Host). (Jan. 19, 2019). All About Mental Health, Episode 1. [Audio Podcast]
World Health Organization. (2014). Mental health: a state of well-being. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/