Mental Heath

The Power of Community in Mental Health

October 8, 2023


October 10 is World Mental Health Day. Recent studies show a staggeringly high number of people are affected by mental health issues. Communities, including faith communities, can play a major role in stemming this trend, as community-based mental health care has seen more positive responses than institutional mental health care according to the WHO. CCIH will hold a forum on October 25 to hear from faith-based organizations working in mental health and provide an opportunity to discuss experiences and approaches. Visit the Events page for more.

Half of the world’s population will be affected by mental ill health at some point in their lives according to a recent large-scale multi-country study. The World Health Organization’s 2022 World mental health report reveals more than 970 million people around the world struggle with mental ill health or drug abuse. That number includes a 13 percent rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders in the last decade. The WHO report also attibutes 14.3 percent of deaths worldwide–approximately 8 million deaths each year–to mental disorders.

These numbers are part of what can be called a global mental health epidemic. Despite progress being made in mental health care in many countries, people with mental health conditions often experience severe human rights violations, discrimination, and stigma. Mental illnesses are very treatable, and their impact can be reduced, but treatment options for individuals are often lacking, of poor quality, and many people feel uncomfortable sharing their symptoms with health providers or friends and family.

While the statistics and facts surrounding mental health may be daunting, there are still ways in which communities and organizations can approach mental health needs in a positive, effective way. Response begins by understanding what mental health is, reducing mental health stigma, and creating accessible facility- or community-based approaches to mental health care.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is more than the absence of illness, it is an integral part of individual and collective health and well-being. The state of a person’s mental health enables them to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, make decisions, build relationships, and so much more. It is a basic human right and crucial to personal, community, and socio-economic development.

Mental health is complex and experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty, distress, and social and clinical outcomes. For many, mental health conditions present like many other physical illnesses, and develop primarily within the body. However, mental health is also affected by exposure to unfavorable social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental circumstances. This includes, but is not limited to, poverty, violence, traumatic events, inequity, and environmental deprivation.

While the factors surrounding mental health outcomes vary widely, protective and preventive factors are essential to improving those outcomes. Providing access to care, safe neighborhoods, community cohesion, quality education, and more can contribute to better outcomes. Even so, global threats such as climate change, economic instability, disease outbreaks, forced displacement, and more continue to put many populations at risk.

Providing Positive Response

When looking closely at statistics, barriers, and external factors surrounding mental health, finding a place to begin can feel overwhelming. However, interventions can be designed for individuals, specific groups, or whole populations. Promotion, prevention, and interventions work by identifying individual, social, and structural determinants to mental health. Then, once those are identified, the work on intervening to reduce risks, build resilience, and establish supportive environments can begin.

Many of these interventions happen beyond the health sector and by the health sector building multisectoral collaboration and coordination. This happens when programs involve education, labor, justice, transport, environment, housing, and welfare sectors. While it is difficult to include all sectors in one program, the health sector can continue to influence these areas within their own health services and through effective advocacy for mental health.

Community-based mental health care has also seen more positive responses than institutional mental health care. Community-based care is often more accessible, helps prevent human rights violations, and delivers better recovery outcomes for people with mental health conditions. A network of interrelated services is strongly encouraged by the World Health Organization. These can look like mental health services integrated in general healthcare; community mental health services such as peer support, psychosocial rehabilitation, and supported living centers; and services that deliver mental health care in social services and non-health settings.

Even with the vast care gap for mental health conditions, there are innovative and diverse ways in which responses can be integrated.

Reducing Stigma

One of the greatest challenges mental health care faces is continued stigma surrounding mental health disorders. Throughout history and continuing today, populations with mental health disorders have been viewed in a negative light, with many facing discriminatory attitudes and representation. Those with mental disorders are often portrayed as unreliable, unpredictable, and incompetent. Mental disorders also face many negative attitudes within faith communities, with many being told it is a lack of faith or related issues causing their mental ill health.

These negative stereotypes and misconceptions often keep people from reaching out to those close to them or medical providers for the help they need because they do not want to risk being labeled. In addition, such negativity can cause internalized shame within those individuals. This leads to lower self-esteem, reduced hope, increased symptoms, and reduced likelihood of staying within a treatment program. In reality, faith communities and leaders are in a key position to address and help overcome stigma.
Research has shown that individuals speaking up about their own experiences and sharing their mental health stories can greatly reduce stigma. The strongest evidence for anti-stigma efforts involved contact with individuals with lived experiences with mental illness and efforts with long-term commitment. Not only that, but social marketing campaigns helping people better understand mental illness and general mental health awareness helped in reducing stigma.

Reducing stigma doesn’t end with shared stories or social campaigns. Being mindful of personal and institutional language surrounding mental health, along with education through books or programs, can greatly reduce stigma. Better understanding begins with an openness to learn and change learned behaviors surrounding the response to mental illness, as does a compassionate approach to mental health care within communities and organizations.

Photo credits from top to bottom: Umit Bulut/Unsplash; Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash; RDNE Stock Project/Pexels; Mart Production/Unsplash

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