The notion of 'community' for mental health recovery
“Connection is why we are here. We are hardwired to connect with others. It gives meaning and purpose in our lives and without it there is suffering”
This is a brilliant quote I read in the book Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. It summarises what I feel is the often looked over component to mental health recovery, is the importance of social connection and community.
My journey of belonging to communities
The fundamental mistake I made while growing up in my teenage and university years was not to build social networks and community connections outside of my study and casual work commitments at Coles. This wasn’t an intentional goal but through lack of not knowing the importance of this life aspect, my life was severely unbalanced and focused on one solitary aspect.
The first indication that this needed to change happened on 4 February 2008, day one of my professional accounting career. Through my employer, RSM Bird Cameron, all the graduate accountants across the country came to Perth, RSM's head office location, to receive an induction and some training and development. On the afternoon of this day, we were given an introduction to the importance of networking from the networking master Ron Gibson, and he explained the ways we could meet new people and form connections.
Although not realising the importance of the message at the time, I look at this as the point where I realised I needed to change my ways.
By the end of that year, I was diagnosed with depression and I ultimately had to leave RSM for the benefit of my health. Unfortunately, I had 2 more years of instability after leaving RSM for a range of factors, but I got back on my feet in January 2011 and started to gradually build the foundations for a more fulfilling life.
My first pursuit was to take up tennis, which was something I did for 6 consecutive years at Robertson Tennis Club in North Perth. Finishing my chartered accountant qualification was a major life hurdle, but I managed to complete that in 2012.
I dabbled in volunteering for the local social enterprise Befriend Inc in June 2013, which lead me to get involved with the TEDxPerth team as finance manager from December 2013 onwards. Befriend gave me great exposure to the importance of social connection and community as it promoted the values of social inclusion for all.
Being part of TEDxPerth was something that has been highly rewarding in my life. I made connections with people from different walks of life that I otherwise would have not met. To work almost year-round on an amazing big scale one day project for 1,700 audience members was fantastic. I cherished every part of it, even when I over committed.
However, it was photography that was the hobby that started to change my perspective on life. I found a life long passion and skill, that got me connected to more people through Facebook photography groups, as well as appreciating the beauty of our wonderful planet.
By the time I picked up photography, I realised I went from one extreme, having minimal community links and hobbies, to having way more hobbies and passions that I could physically maintain!
Despite all these pursuits, I still desired to do something more in the mental health realm and within a day of discussing it with my psychologist, I established my own social enterprise community, the Perth Active Depression Support Group, which is now almost 2,000 members strong and runs an array of fun social activities to improve our members mental health and well-being.
The tennis, volunteering, photography, Chartered Accountant and mental health communities I joined and even formed helped me to get a sense of personal identity and life purpose that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Although I do struggle at times within the ups and downs of life as they occur, I firmly believe I have recovered in terms of my mental health when I compare myself now to where I was back in the start of my professional career. The growth wasn’t instantly recognisable, but it was there over time.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the Act Belong Commit campaign.
The importance of community is well known yet I don’t believe the mental health sector does enough to promote this. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the sense of belongingness is the 3rd motivating factor for a person after they satisfy their physiological and personal safety needs.
I feel now a sense of belongingness that I didn’t have at one point in my life. This sense of belonging helps me now to shift onto the higher order needs of Maslow’s hierarchy, being self-esteem and self-actualisation. It took a while to get there, but I made it.
However, something I have seen and observed since I have been involved in the mental health sector, starting voluntarily with my social enterprise in June 2016 and then professionally in 2017 for not for profits based in the sector, is that they seem to deal with issues people have in regards to their physiological and safety needs. It’s understandable that this is the case, as people who are severe and persistent mental health conditions often face challenges with these type of needs.
However, there seems to be little done with the creation and promotion of strong communities to make people feel a part of something and realise they are not alone.
However, in WA, there is one major exception to this and this is the Act Belong Commit campaign. This campaign I feel is the strong beacon of light that demonstrates a message of belonging in a community that not many other players in the sector promote as well as they do.
However, one tiny limitation of their program is that they just focus on the marketing of their message. They don’t do the activity building on the grass root levels but partner with the organisations like my social enterprise who do. That said I am very happy with what they do and I am a proud partner of their wonderful, well-respected campaign. They are filling a gap that no one else does.
Virtual vs real communities
For me, there is no substitute for meeting in person, as it’s the most friendly way to connect. You can communicate through body language, tone and other personal characteristics that are lost in digital connection.
However, I am of the belief that digital communities do have some merit. You can feel that sense of connection using apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and others. I use most of these extensively, both for personal use and for my social enterprise.
I see the real worth in being part of online communities coming into fruition when you connect in person after meeting online. Through the use of all the apps mentioned up I’ve managed to connect in person with an array of people, some even internationally based, that otherwise would have not occurred without it. That’s why I love using the social networking site Meetup, as connecting with others is what it’s essentially about.
Building communities, my solution to mental health recovery
So I hope by now I have demonstrated how social connection and community have improved my life, as well as explain the theory behind why the social connection is so vitally important.
What I would like to propose now is the idea that we build and create communities to improve the wellbeing of members in our society. That is is what I have strived to do with social enterprise. I just wanted to connect with others who identified with like-minded issues but in a proactive manner. We yearn for that sense of connection and that feeling that we matter as human beings.
If I had a bit of financial capital I would be creating and investing in a mental health cafe. This would be a space that would be branded as mental health friendly and employ staff who have lived experience of mental health issues. We would host events like board game afternoons, quiz nights and food tasting events, amongst other ideas, that would welcome customers who have a lived experience of mental health issues and have a safe space to come to if they were having a tough day.
If you need any further convincing on the importance of community. check out my favourite TED talk on the longest study of happiness by Robert Waldinger. In it, he found that the quality of relationships doesn’t just make you happier, it makes you healthier too. This is why I’ll firmly believe in creating communities for better mental health.
It apparently takes a village to raise a child. Let’s build that village so that children and adults alike can be raised in an enriching and valued environment.
About the Writer
Rahul Seth is a Chartered Accountant turned mental health changemaker and is the founder of the social enterprise the Perth Active Depression Support Group, which is a proud partner of the Act-Belong-Commit campaign. After working in the accounting sector for 9 year, Rahul now works professionally within the mental health sector. Rahul is a firm believer of the power and community and social connection for mental health recovery. In his spare time Rahul follows Formula 1 racing, loves photography and graphic design, plays tennis and is into adult colouring-in books for relaxation.
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