In Utero: Community the Great Mental Health Insulator

How is it that community can insulate us from stress and promote mental health?  We all know the reverse, when community contributes to negative mental health: through bullying, isolation, fear, and oppression. However, we also know that community has the ability to promote positive ways of coping and help us navigate difficult periods of life.  In reality, it all starts before we are even born. 


From the time our cells begin to knit themselves together, our environment (at this point the womb) provides us with a certain set of information. I won’t go into great detail particularly since there are many unknowns still as to this process, but the quick of it is that our environment from stage one begins to tell our nature how to put itself together.  Yes, this is a gross oversimplification, but for the sake of this post, I will double down with more oversimplifications. This interaction of the environment and our being continue to shape who we are from this point onward. Some would even go further pointing out that features found within our DNA go back so many generations and in many ways are determinate of who we become as children, teenagers, and adults (see Robert Sapolsky’s wonderful work for less of an oversimplification). 

So what does this have to do with community and the promotion of mental health? Well, if the environment we explore in utero, in childhood, through adolescence and into our teenage years has the ability to shape who we become and are becoming, this shaping can be in many directions.

When we talk about mental health, we often are speaking about mental illness. Thankfully this discussion is changing. No longer is it only about illness, but at an increasing rate, the discussion is about what being mentally healthy looks like. One of the exciting features of this process is the invitation to look at mental health through a new lens.  Look carefully at what mental health looks like. Yes, it can look like clean smiles and a picket fence, but increasingly the picture of mental health is looking like celebrated imperfection.  

When community comes together to embrace imperfection and recognize all of our struggles (universal), curious things can happen. No longer are the illness’s we experience met with fear and confusion. Instead they are met with compassion and understanding.  A great example of this is often found in the first few sessions I have with clients. As I seek to understand their experience, we together begin to make some sense of it all. This is called conceptualization. However, instead of this being a process that I direct, it must be a co-creative process. Often as we explore what is happening together we form a new perspective. What appeared scary, is met with more understanding. With understanding comes a decrease in fear and an increase in compassion. From this place hope can begin to take hold, and health begins to take root and grow.  
 

Community that Promotes Mental Health

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives… social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed” - Bessel van der Kolk

 

Social connectedness, or community is likely the most important part of sustaining mental health. So often when we talk about mental health, we are actually talking about a lack of mental health. Instead of focusing on what makes community work, we focus on what is going wrong. We talk about the challenges of development in our children, we talk about what makes our intimate relationships break down, and we talk about the isolation we experience in depression.  This is not to say this side of the conversation is not important. The primary importance is not in labelling and identifying the disorder or wrongness. Rather, the importance is found in identifying when it is that we need to seek help from others.   

One of the very first things I do in session is a bit of a resource inventory with my clients. No, I’m not figuring out how much people are worth, what they own, nor am I particularly interested in the special skills (at least not at this part). Instead, What I am looking for is what this family, couple, or individuals support network looks like.  Are there others in their lives who care deeply, compassionately for them? Maybe there is something blocking the compassion for and of others? Essentially,  I am asking, how will community do its job, get together, to meet my clients with compassion, support, care, and encouragement. 

This is true in both areas of my work: working with those experiencing homelessness and poverty with The Mustard Seed, and in my private practice work here at Approach.  When community comes together, plays nice, and focuses on support and understanding through compassion, amazing things happen. Whether it means finding a safe place to live for the first time in decades. Possibly it’s connecting with neighbors who desire and take joy in helping you out through a particularly challenging time with meals, connection, and even laughter. Maybe it is that close friend who pushes past your statement of“I’m fine” to discover you are not fine, but instead need someone to connect with – face to face.  This is how community insulates and protects us and encourages mental health.