Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Power of Community

Something happened every day this week that reminded me of the power of community to protect and promote mental health. 

It’s not just that being connected in community is good for our mental health, which it is. It was the aha moment – both familiar and new – that when we invest in our communities, we get something that is more than the sum of its parts. We actually create a virtuous cycle that nourishes the individuals who comprise the group. The group grows stronger. It has more to give the individuals who grow stronger again, ad infinitum. In short order, we create abundance. 

1. COVID-19 on Monday. We have almost a year full of stories of healthcare workers and their communities all over the world supporting one another during a time of unprecedented despair, unpredictability, and distress – stories of healthcare workers holding the hands of individuals as they took their last breath; community members raising funds for PPE for those healthcare workers; people delivering food and basic goods to the sick, elderly, and vulnerable members of their community. Every one of these stories has a mental health thread. Reading them has the surplus value of bolstering readers’ hope, optimism, and mental health. This Monday, a friend sent me a link to Health Hero Hotline that enables you to leave a message of appreciation and support. And we all know that expressing gratitude has its own mental health benefits.

2. Botswana on Tuesday. Our Columbia University Seminar on Global Mental Health had the privilege of hosting Dr. Merrian Brooks on Tuesday morning. Hers is a story of community empowerment at many levels. She works in Botswana with HIV+ youth. In partnership with the local community, community members are receiving training to provide an evidence-based problem solving therapy. The treatment is delivered by individuals from the community who are only a bit older than the youth being served. As key stakeholders, the community has voice and representation in designing and delivering the program. The community is stronger. Individuals with mental health needs are better served. Lives are saved.

3. Bonne Maman on Wednesday. A chance encounter at a northern New Jersey grocery store went viral on Twitter and was forwarded to me on Wednesday. Michael Perino, a professor of law, tweeted about his encounter with an elderly woman who was struggling to reach a jar of jam. As Perino helped her, she explained that she only buys Bonne Maman because she is a Holocaust survivor whose family was hidden by the family that owns this company. It is an unverified but heartwarming story of Nazi resistance. It is a story of community in the service of individuals, and individuals in the service of community.

4. Texas “Mattress Mack” on Thursday. Texas was hit hard by the historic snowstorm that left millions without power and water this week. Much could be said about ways in which public systems failed Texans. Much can also be said about community members who are rallying to support each other. Responding to the dire situation around him, a Houston furniture store owner, known as “Mattress Mack”, opened his doors to community members who were without power. Thousands took refuge where they found clean water and safety – and a mattress – and reduced stress and anxiety.

5. Five on Friday (on Friday). Communities come in all shapes and sizes. Our online community of readers number well over fifteen thousand any given week. Today I heard from someone who received a Five on Friday years ago that was forwarded to her by a friend. At the time it was interesting. Today, it helped her get the mental health care that her child needed. She sent an email to thank me. I don’t know the reader who forwarded the original message to her, so I will thank you here for being part of this virtual community that cares about mental health.

These moments over the course of the week remind me of my honeybees who are tucked in their hives under a blanket of snow. Waiting out the winter, they are huddled together to keep each other warm. They cannot survive on their own. They are all needed to produce that liquid gold we call honey. Their colonies are called superorganisms to describe this organization of eusocial behavior, where each member contributes to some greater good. If we are lucky, we humans belong to communities that do the same.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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