The Mental Health Value of Community

At the risk of being accused of only doing this to be fashionable, I feel compelled to add my thoughts to the mental health discussion in this week where the subject is even more in the spotlight than usual.

As a teenager in the UK 40 years ago, mental health was a subject barely mentioned, and when it was, it was generally only through the medium of childish jokes about ending up in the local ‘funny farm’.  That was a period that was still influenced by the stiff upper lip mentality of the Second World War, whilst at the same time emphasising the possibilities and opportunities available if you worked hard in that ‘modern’ age.

Roll on to present day and it seems every other article you read is about the scourge of poor mental health.  This inevitably raises the question of why there has been such a significant change in a relatively short period of time.  Is there really a mental health crisis or is it just that we are talking about it much more?

As is usually the case with matters of public debate, the answer of course lies somewhere in between, and all of the associated noise makes it difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the issue.

That there is an issue is now unquestionable, but I sometimes wonder whether the constant debate to some extent fuels the fire.  Please don’t take this to mean I think we should keep quiet and all will be well – nothing could be further from the truth – but I do believe mental health can be improved simply by talking positively.  Negativity is catching and self-perpetuating, but so is positivity.  Hence, simplistic as it may be, surely we could all benefit from a bit of upbeat communication.

There is a much quoted statistic doing the rounds at the moment stating that 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue every year.  We need to be careful what we infer from this, but it is clear more people are suffering with poor mental health than ever before.  

Why is that, I wonder?

Well, there are many theories, as you might expect, but the principal causes seem to be:

  1. Isolation and loneliness;
  2. Social media; and
  3. Covid

with the third cause above probably being a subset of the first, at least to some extent.

There are many articles exploring the impact of each of these factors in great detail, so I don’t intend to delve much deeper here, but I wanted to draw one interesting observation out of this.  In this age of inter-connectedness, instant communication and vast access to knowledge, loneliness is on the rise, and one study has pointed to young adults in the age group 16 to 24 being the loneliest group of all in Western countries. That’s a shocking finding, particularly to someone who grew up in an age where those truly were the most exciting years of your life.

What can we learn from this?

Well in the iconic words of Bob Hoskins in the BT ads of the ‘90s, “It’s good to talk”.  Communication is everything, but I’m not talking about the light touch, vacuous type so common on social media platforms, I mean proper conversations where we share our hopes, dreams, fears and interests…..and we should make time to do this face to face.

There is also a base human need to feel part of a community and the modern trend towards living alone and away from practising organised religions means that our traditional mental health safety nets of the family unit and the church (other structures for communal worship are available) congregation are less protective than they used to be.

This is where the business world can really step up to help fill the void.  We spend a significant part of our lives at our place of work, so it’s incumbent on business leaders to engender a culture of inclusivity and safety, where employees genuinely feel part of a community where they can speak openly and even (occasionally!) have fun.

Of course, businesses exist to make money, not to be a social club, but there is no reason why the two things shouldn’t go hand in hand.  In fact, as we all know, a happy workforce is a productive workforce, so not only is there a societal benefit from developing a sense of community, but there is also a productivity benefit.

So perhaps we need to teach business leaders some of the social skills normally associated with the local vicar.  That might solve a few of the world’s problems!  I’m planning the next Dafferns Whist Drive as I speak!