How Does Our Sense of Belonging Shape our Mental Health?

The Vital Conditions for Health & Well-Being tell us about the places and institutions that we all depend on to be healthy and well. The Seven Vital Conditions shape the choices, opportunities, and adversities that we encounter throughout our lives.

While each Vital Condition is distinct and indispensable, Vital Conditions also interact to create a community system for well-being. And, that’s how we experience vital conditions: as a community system. In Cross-Cutting Themes: Working Across the Vital Conditions, the Community Commons team explored the cross-cutting theme of mental health.

Let’s continue the conversation and look at ways to strengthen mental health and well-being in our communities. 

Defining Mental Health

Mental health is a multi-faceted component of well-being--and is part of all our lives. From the everyday joy of walking in nature to the grief of losing a loved one, personal and community experiences shape our mental health. The way we use the term “mental health” is just as all-encompassing: it describes everything from a casual reference to feeling down to a clinical diagnosis of mental illness. 

When thinking about how to advance a cross-cutting strategy to improve mental health in your community, it can be overwhelming to define what aspects or components to focus on, whether it makes sense to narrow your work plan, and how to get started.  

One way to incorporate mental health into a broader agenda to advance intergenerational well-being is to explore how mental health connects to the foundational Vital Condition: Belonging and Civic Muscle.

Increase Belonging

Belonging and Civic Muscle is one of the seven Vital Conditions and refers to the special capacity of people and institutions that convey to all: 1) a sense of belonging and 2) the power to influence policies, practices, and programs that shape communities.

Belonging and Civic Muscle is foundational to expanding all Vital Conditions, given the extent to which the power of belonging can shape communities. Higher levels of social cohesion are associated with higher levels of trust, cooperation and social capital, providing the necessary foundation for creating healthy patterns for working together across groups and sectors, and for building the “civic infrastructure” that enables community members to co-create a shared future.

Belonging and connection are made up of social support from friends, family, and other networks, which contributes to one’s practical and emotional needs, helps navigate life’s challenges, and reinforces healthy behaviors. At the community and neighborhood level, belonging becomes social cohesion that strengthens social ties and engenders collective attachment. 

These characteristics of belonging, connection, and civic muscle strengthen mental health by giving us the support needed to engage in meaningful ways with the people and places that make up our lives.

As community change-makers expand the Vital Conditions, the healthy patterns needed to increase belonging also mean reducing isolation--and addressing some of the most painful aspects of mental health. 

Reduce Isolation

The Well Being Trust, a WIN Network partner, is leading a national resilience strategy to address mental health by reducing deaths by suicide, alcohol and drug use. The recently released Pain in the Nation: Building a National Resilience Strategy Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Suicide and the Millennial Generation – a Devasting Impact describes the complex landscape facing this young generation—and solutions to reverse this trend.

The report also outlines specific risk factors to address and protective factors to strengthen:

“Protective factors that help guard against substance use disorders and other types of mental health problems include emotional self-regulation, good coping skills, engagement and connections in multiple contexts (for example, school, peers, athletics, employment, religion, culture), strong family bonds, and opportunities for positive social involvement.” –Pain the Nation, page 9.

This list of protective factors includes components that can help people live with and manage mental health challenges, shedding light on the power of belonging and connection. 

Looking Ahead

Stay tuned for more resources related to mental health and well-being on the Commons, including how local change-makers are increasing belonging and reducing isolation to make their communities healthy, vibrant places for everyone.

 Related Topics

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Substance Use

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Seven Vital Conditions for Health and Well-Being

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Social Capital

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Belonging and Civic Muscle

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Mental and Behavioral Health