We are told that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue. Often only focused on when we are diagnosed with an issue by a doctor and told that something is wrong with us. The individualised nature of mental health services can lead somebody to believe that there is something wrong with them, that their mind, thoughts or behaviour are malfunctioning in some way. Treatments, usually in the form of medication and talking therapies, are prescribed to individuals. Many of these treatments are successful, while some are not.
I am not suggesting that individuals should not receive treatment. Instead, it should be understood that there is an urgent need to look beyond the brain, to lifestyles, communities and society and that these social factors shape our experiences and our capacity to lead healthy, happy lives.
When we describe ourselves to others, we frequently draw on these social and community aspects to say something about our identity. My Twitter profile, for example, describes me as a critical social psychologist, action researcher and a working-class academic. This describes the communities with which I identify.
What is a community?
Until recently, when I thought of the word ‘community’ I picture a quaint English country village with fetes, bunting and baking competitions. The traditional definition is that of a group of people living in one place. Community as place is however only one definition of community. Contemporary definitions of community adopt the idea of a collective of people with a shared sense of identity.
Location, identity, heritage and shared experience can all inform our sense of who we are and the various communities to which we belong. To take myself as an example, I am a member of the Keele community as a lecturer at Keele University and also the academic community – defined by place and profession. I am also a member of the LGBT+ and working-class communities – defined by identity and background.
Why care about communities?
Communities are crucial, because healthy individuals are the product of healthy communities. This is the core message of the British Psychological Society Community Psychology Section. By addressing individuals in isolation of others, we ignore the social, cultural and economic sources of ill-health and well-being. Some mental health problems lie beyond faulty brains and bodies. Inadequate or inappropriate resources and social injustice can provide fertile ground for unhealthy, unhappy individuals. Well-being can also be promoted, where there is space for individuals to come together, share resources and a vision. With outside support, positive social change can be facilitated.
In Stoke-on-Trent, where I grew up and where I now work alongside communities, there are pockets of low literacy, poverty and social isolation. Community organisations such as Saltbox offer support communities such as befriending schemes, money management programmes and community events. Accessible community spaces such as those facilitated by Places of Welcome in Stoke and across the Midlands, provide means and ways for local communities to come together. These organisations work with the principle that healthy individuals are the product of healthy local communities.
Equally important are communities of identity, which are prone to mental health issues as a consequence of health and social inequalities. In July 2018, the British government conducted the world’s largest survey of LGBT experiences. Bisexuals were found to report lower life satisfaction than gays and lesbians. Research has suggested that this could be in part a community issue, due to bisexuals feeling alienated from LGBT communities for ‘not being gay enough‘ and stigma can be internalised.
Some communities and identities creep up on us over time or are imposed on us by others. A key example of this is the older community. The label ‘old’ can be stigmatising as people talk and act in ways that fit stereotypes of old age rather than the individuals we encounter. Communities can, therefore, present problems, they can allow stereotypes to thrive but equally, they can also allow like-minded individuals with shared experiences to come together and identify common problems and solutions.
How can we work with communities to promote well-being?
As an individual, you can connect with like-minded people, join in a cause you are passionate about, find spaces and places where you can identify with others. For me, social media is a fantastic resource to connect with others and support community causes. For others, it might be local groups, big or small. Connect with communities you identify with, there is power in numbers. Look for opportunities to challenge sources of ill-health and well-being in your own communities and as an ally to others.
Dr Katie Wright-Bevans is a lecturer and scholar-activist in social, health and community psychology at Keele University. She is co-chair of the Keele Action Research Network and a committee member in the British Psychological Society Community Psychology section. Katie’s research focuses on health inequalities and community action. She has worked on issues such as loneliness and isolation among older communities and stigma and bisexuality. You can find out more about Katie through her blog.