Mental health is a multi-faceted component of well-being–and is part of all our lives. From the joy of walking out in nature with friends to the grief of losing a loved one – personal and community experiences influence our mental health. In addressing mental health and community well-being it’s important to place well-being at the center of every aspect of life—to guide decisions and define our health as an individual, family and community.
The pandemic has influenced our personal and community health and well-being through the collective anxiety of loss – the civic unrest connected to years of systemic racism – awareness about the legacies of historical trauma and generations of inequality of conditions. The pandemic has revealed just how devastating “othering” is on the health of marginalized communities and the mental health of a nation. Othering is an “us vs. them” way of thinking about human connections and relationships and that impacts personal and community well-being.
Consider the groups and labels we give ourselves and others throughout our lives. We are members of families, sporting teams, hobbyists, spiritual groups, charities, political parties, cities, countries and nationalities, to name a few. Nearly every aspect of our lives is organized around belonging to something. We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health.
This may be the time in history to incorporate mental health into a broader agenda and advance community well-being. We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our mental health and “othering” plays a huge role in the disconnection to one another. Cultivating a culture of belonging and community well-being will involve confronting “othering” – opposing othering will dismantle racism, discrimination and support equality of conditions. Regardless of a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, age group, or sexual orientation – a focus on belonging will build inclusion in community well-being. Diversity and inclusion are important but there is more to the equation- belonging is about connection and purpose.
The need for a sense of belonging resonates across all cultures. Members of a northern Natal tribe of South Africa greet one another daily by saying “Sawubona”, which literally means: “I see you.” And the response is “I am here”. This daily exchange denotes that until you ‘see’ me, I do not exist; and when you ‘see’ me, you bring me into existence. Cultivating a culture of belonging is about being seen and heard in our full humanity –and as john a. powell states, “it’s about expanding the circle of human concern.” There is no better time in history to have conversations that elicit the action steps necessary in cultivating a culture of belonging and community well-being.
Several years ago the Mental Health Association in New York State offered a symposium titled, Healed People Heal Communities – a focus on community well-being. It is in our relationships with each other that we heal…that we can affirm each other’s qualities, and build the foundations for movements that can make big changes in our own well-being and the well-being of our communities. The social ties that accompany a sense of belonging are a protective factor for community well-being. As mentioned earlier in this essay personal and community experiences influence our mental health and to be independently and collectively resilient requires support and connecting to our shared humanity.
Cultivating a culture of belonging and community well-being does not insist that we are all the same. It about celebrating our differences and as john a. powell suggests in a society where everyone is inside the circle of human concern.