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In what ways is community valuable to mental health? Conversely, how are social isolation and loneliness harmful to a person’s psychological wellbeing? Questions like these have prompted a flurry of study in the last decade by major research institutions across the country. What scientists have found is that, whereas social isolation is associated with higher anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and suicide rates, social connectedness correlates with lower anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and suicide rates. In other words, community is critically important to mental health.
Dr. Sandra Cumper Boynton, DBH, isn’t just intimately familiar with these findings—she regularly sees the human face of these statistics. As Executive Director of the largest grassroots mental health organization in the country, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Broward County, she is a sought-out expert on these issues and an advocate and resource for individuals and families affected by mental health challenges. (Explore Dr. Cumper Boynton’s reasons to be hopeful about healing from mental illness here.)
In a recent interview, we spoke to Dr. Cumper Boynton about the importance of community to mental health. Her answers drive home just how impactful relationships of belonging—or their lack thereof—can be….
The Value of Community to Mental Health
We opened our conversation by inviting Dr. Cumper Boynton to talk about the value of community—specifically, what are its benefits to mental health, we wondered? Dr. Cumper Boynton responded by first defining community:
Community is more than just people. It’s more like a mutual understanding within a cohesive group; it is being on the same page and being in your comfort zone with like-minded people who share and support each other. It’s a feeling of belonging.
Regarding mental health, community serves a great impact on how a person relates to everything (ideas, places, situations) to people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, particularly during stressful times.
If community can have a “great impact” on how an individual relates to their stress, their experiences, their relationships, and still other aspects of their life, what exactly are the benefits of being in community? Dr. Cumper Boynton listed several:
Comfort, Connection, and Social Support
“People need to be connected. We were not meant to be in isolation. This became evident during the pandemic. People thrive when they belong, whether in families, schools, or within group settings where they feel comfortable. People need to be with people they can identify with and who will support them in their needs.”
Purpose and a Reason to Exist
“Community gives us a purpose and a reason to exist. Within communities of people struggling with mental health challenges, individuals learn to recognize their health issues, support systems, and resources. Without this community, a person may feel rejected and alone and believe that they have no purpose or reason to exist.”
Acceptance and Validation
“Recognizing and accepting mental health challenges as real and allowing our own acknowledgement of our limitations can help us better understand those who are living with mental health challenges. If we validate their feelings, it shows that we understand where they are coming from, even if we don’t quite agree with what they say or do. Support means so much.”
Lessons from Interpersonal Learning for Mental Health
Group therapy has helped many people face their mental health challenges with the help of a supportive community of peers who share similar struggles. These settings provide a safe space in which to share experiences and trade tips for how to cope with symptoms, stressors, and other life issues.
Whether formally or informally, group therapy applies lessons from “interpersonal learning.” The concept may be more familiar within educational contexts, but its basic idea is highly relevant to a discussion of the therapeutic power of community—namely, that people often learn better through interacting with others. The connections that happen in a roomful of people can be deeply transformative.
What are the lessons from interpersonal learning for mental health? Here Dr. Cumper Boynton appealed to her work with NAMI. Much of it involves “encouraging dialogue using the same language,” with a view to “gaining more understanding from the communication”:
To be sensitive to the perspective of someone experiencing mental health challenges, NAMI focuses a lot on uniform communication in presentations, educational groups, and speaking engagements. This is a powerful tool, because communication goes both ways and is authentic and people understand it. With our support groups, if a person in one of our supports groups in Broward were to leave and go to another of our support groups in New York, Connecticut, or any other state, they would hear the same language. It’s so important with mental health to be authentic and consistent with language … That consistency keeps you safe, and understanding what’s being communicated puts you in a secure place.
In addition to a shared language that provides them with a sense of safety, security, and consistency, “individuals speak peer to peer” in NAMI groups. This peer-to-peer component is crucial. Dr. Cumper Boynton noted that whether the group is a support or educational group, participants are “looking for that moment when they can say, ‘Aha, this relates to me.’”
The Mental Health Dangers of Becoming Isolated
The mental health dangers of becoming isolated are unique. That is because a mental health condition can aggravate and compound one’s sense of isolation, which is not always the case with other medical conditions. This lack of community and its accumulation over time can have dire consequences, as illustrated by rising rates of suicide in this country.
Dr. Cumper Boynton described how this self-isolating dynamic can play out in families, complicating the healing process:
If someone is having mental health challenges, one of the first things they’re inclined to do is self-isolate. One symptom of depression is self-isolation. Isolation within families, whether you’re the parent or the child, affects the other. If the parent is dealing with depression, the child becomes scared or nervous not understanding what the parent is experiencing. If the child is dealing with depression, the parent gets anxious about their child isolating and what this is doing to the child. Either way we are looking at a problem here.
In the meantime, isolating “is almost as bad as having the disorder itself, especially if a person is refusing treatment and/or is afraid to seek help.” The isolating can have harmful effects such as blaming, divorce, child neglect, and breakdown of the family unit.
“When you’re facing mental health challenges, particularly depression, it’s a lonely place,” Dr. Cumper Boynton continued. “You’re find yourself experiencing thoughts and emotions that can be frightful and puzzling. There is also the stigma associated with mental illness that prevents people from getting treatment.”
Dr. Cumper Boynton emphasized that the stigma of mental illness is often “harder on our younger people, who can be unkind to one another.” She noted how “teasing and bullying can lead to an even darker place and in the worst cases suicide” and pointed to alarming new statistics about suicide in young people. (Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 and the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.)
Outlets for Community and Social Connection
When asked what outlets she would recommend for building community and increasing social connection, Dr. Cumper Boynton suggested a few different options (which are not exhaustive): programs at NAMI that help to reduce the stigma of mental illness through support, education, and advocacy; schools and school initiatives that work to prevent trauma like bullying and teaching skills like emotion regulation; the workplace and supports that acknowledge and address the stressors that employees face, not just at work but at home.
“I like to say that there is no health without mental health,” Dr. Cumper Boynton said in conclusion. “The Diagnostic Statistical Manual V has almost 300 disorders, so mental health problems can impact anyone, anywhere, in our lives, families, workplaces and communities. We should therefore be aware that mental health needs to be talked about, regardless of what the diagnosis is.”
That conversation happens best in community.