Impact of Community on Mental Health (and How to Find Yours)
When we’re surrounded by people who accept us fully for who we are, we’re more likely to feel supported, loved and valued. That’s one of the reasons such a strong link exists between community and mental health.
A community is a group of people who care deeply about each other and feel a sense of belonging when they are around one another. When you find the right community, you can form lasting relationships capable of improving the emotional well-being of everybody in the group. An inclusive and welcoming community will also enhance each member’s personal growth. And being part of a community can even give you the strength to seek treatment for anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges.
What research tells us about community and mental health
Human beings tend to thrive when they’re in communities and struggle more in isolation. A growing body of medical research bears this out.
For example, Canadian researchers asked individuals across all age ranges to rate their sense of connection and their levels of general and mental health. The data showed that people who said they had a very strong sense of community belonging were 3.21 times more likely to say they had a high level of general health and 4.95 times more likely to say they had a strong level of mental health .
Earlier this year, a team of researchers reviewed 41 studies about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and identified significant increases in loneliness among children and adolescents compared to pre-pandemic levels. Those higher levels of loneliness were associated with poorer well-being, including higher depression and anxiety symptoms .
Five benefits of community
Having a strong sense of community can lessen the symptoms of many mental illnesses and prevent conditions before they occur. That’s because community can help individuals develop a strong sense of:
- Belonging – Being among like-minded people enhances feelings of acceptance. In the strongest communities, individuals don’t feel like they have to conform to fit into the group. Instead, they stay true to themselves and are accepted for who they are. This sense of belonging creates an environment where each individual in the group believes they receive as much as they give.
- Support – Every individual encounters some sort of rough patch during their life, and they rely on the support of others for reassurance and hope. Within a thriving community, people trust each other and rely on each other because they feel that they’re cared for and respected.
- Purpose – Each person’s role in their community gives them a sense of purpose because they engage in activities that improve each other’s day-to-day lives. For example, you might be the person who always pitches in to help others or provides a calming influence in times of turmoil.
- Safety – An inclusive community creates a safe space where trust exists among members and individuals view mistakes as learning opportunities. Psychological and physical safety also create a stronger sense of self-worth, identity and respect.
- Recovery – Individuals in accepting and nonjudgmental communities may be more receptive to seeking and receiving care for their own mental health. By asking their communities for support, people can receive the validation and motivation they need to seek treatment.
How to find your community
Finding your own community can take time. The first step is to do some self-reflection. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends that you first identify your:
- Interests – Consider the activities that bring you the most joy—pottery, dance, singing, reading, sports. Doing so can help you find groups, classes, or teams where members share the same passions.
- Values – Think about the ideal ways you’d like to give back to others. Perhaps you have a favorite charity. Maybe you enjoy volunteering at a local school or animal shelter. When you give back, you naturally find others who enjoy doing the same.
- Beliefs – Maybe there’s a cause you believe in deeply, or perhaps you’ve identified a spiritual practice you want to explore. Connecting with something larger than yourself can help you expand your community.
How do I know I’ve found my community?
If you’re in a community right now, how do you know it’s the right one for you? This is something our team recently explored during Creating Community from Say It Brave, our very own inclusive community dedicated to fostering connection and ending mental health stigma.
Event presenters Shannon Kopp, Dr. Ashley Solomon, and Eric Dorsa recommended assessing the health of your community by asking these questions:
- Does it promote the values and ideas I personally hold?
- Do I feel safe physically, emotionally and spiritually here?
- Can I be my most authentic self here?
- Are my time, energy and contributions valued and honored?
- Do I feel like have a place or role in this community?
- Will my perspectives -- even when dissenting -- be valued and respected?
- Am I given permission by people around me to question? To live in uncertainty? To reach out to others for help?
Once you know the answers, you can determine whether it’s right to stay in the group; leave the group for one that’s more in line with your interests, values and beliefs; or work to make the community more supportive. Here are a few tips for building a healthier community.
- Be aware of your ideals and values.
- Establish the level of intimacy and connection with which you’re most comfortable.
- Decide on your mode of communication.
- Set expectations and boundaries.
- Practice openness and vulnerability.
- Expect and demonstrate respect.
Where can I learn more about community and mental health?
ERC Pathlight offers a variety of free support groups and resources for people and loved ones who deal with eating disorders or depression, anxiety and mood disorders.
Join a virtual support group
If you’re interested in raising mental health awareness, consider joining a NAMIWalks event, where you’ll meet like-minded people working toward eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness.
View more ERC Pathlight community resources:
- Michalski, C. A., Diemert, L. M., Helliwell, J. F., Goel, V., & Rosella, L. C. (2020). Relationship between sense of community belonging and self-rated health across life stages. SSM - Population Health, 12, 100676. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100676
- Farrell, A. H., Vigorous, I., Eriksson, M., & Vaillancourt, T. (2023). Loneliness and well-being in children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review. Children (Basel), 10(2), 279. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9955087/