Community Resilience Building: Strengthening Social Bonds And Support Systems For Mental Wellness

  • Regina LopesSenior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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What is community resilience?

Community resilience describes a framework that allows for a better understanding of the ability and capacity of a community to recover from adverse situations.1 These situations include disease pandemics, environmental/natural disasters, and socio-economic unrest. The ability of a community to cope in such situations is the heart of community resilience.1,2

It is a major public policy priority for every community to reduce post-traumatic stress and mental ill-health. Community resilience will address how individuals get around traumatic life stresses by reaching out to the social groups and available resources within their communities. It also analyses the methods in which communities return to the previous way of life after stress associated with challenging situations. Generally, the resilience of a community is dependent on their human and social capital.3

Sense of community

In communities that have successfully implemented programs to improve mental wellness, there are strong communal structures and a sense of community.4 This sense of community includes a feeling of identity, influence in the community and vice-versa, a fulfilment of basic needs, and available emotional support. It varies depending on the level of an individual's attachment to the community and is vital to the recovery of a community following adverse events. The community structures provide support and have been demonstrated to improve mental wellness.5

Levels of resilience and social bonds

Other levels of resilience include the individual, family, and regional.6 The resilience of an individual relies on their emotions, work, and ability to maintain healthy connections. However, this is directly linked to the level of communal support available in a disaster to adapt positively.

Therefore, individual and community resilience are important for overall human resilience.6 The main factors that improve the resilience of a community are wide social networks, supportive environment, purposefulness, support through available infrastructure, and good leadership.4 Social bonds are tested during difficult situations, and inequalities usually become worse and evident in the society.

Thus, members of affected communities might experience more mental health challenges in these periods.7 Furthermore, the cushioning effects of community resilience through social bonds and support systems has been shown to be more beneficial, compared to interpersonal social bonds from family and friends.2

Initiatives to screen for social isolation and sign-posting them to community services has proven invaluable in strengthening community connections and increasing a sense of community. This is usually done through a social prescribing program.8 The activities include voluntary and local volunteering opportunities. They include walking, gardening, exercises, support staff - all to facilitate contact with the physical environment, build and strengthen social relationships.

Mental health

Mental health issues are a major reason for primary care visitations in every community, and most issues are due to poor social connections.9 The populations most at risk are: 

  • Those who live alone
  • Persons with little or no participation in sporting activities
  • Those with no friends or recently ended relationships
  • The elderly who are retired and have reduced mobility
  • Immigrants and refugees

Social support 

Appropriate social support is necessary to mitigate the distress associated with disasters and improve mental health. The strength of the social bond in a community is a reflection of the type of social support available to members and the sources of the support. The types of support could be either informational or emotional. While the support can come from other community members or professionals; or family and friends.10

Components of community resilience

Community resilience can be divided into four components:11

Physical and psychological health

The physical health of a community determines how the community can recover and react. Members of a community with physical disabilities might struggle and will require more support. Medical and support services are developed to ensure appropriate support to these populations. While psychological health addresses coping strategies to reduce associated psychological distress. 

Communication 

This involves the exchange of information about the risks associated with adverse events. The major components of communication involve the message, messenger, and the means by which the message is sent. This allows for better preparation and recovery by the community. Overall, the way messages are crafted and disseminated will determine the way a community can adapt. A more recent example was the covid pandemic and how communities panicked and struggled, due to the lack of cohesion in the messages received.

Furthermore, the diversity and modes of communication should acknowledge the beliefs and literacy levels of the community receiving the information from simpler and technical messages, to traditional and social media use. Communication channels between the public and various service organisations should be kept open to provide uniform and countermeasures as needed.

Social connectedness and integration 

This is the type of relationship that exists among community members. It could be either amongst family and friends on a personal level or in a professional setting. These relationships also differ in depth, and communities with deeper levels of relationship have an increased sense of attachment to the community. During a disaster, community members tap into their personal and professional connections to send and receive support messages to bolster mental health. These relationships are also necessary for planning before such events.

Organisation involvement

The involvement of organisations provides a means for education about adverse events, and fostering discussions on policy directions. It is also a way in which risk communication is sent, and collaborations are developed to increase knowledge and enhance better preparation.

Characteristics of resilient communities

The characteristics of resilient communities in the face of disasters:12

  • They are able to use their pre-existing knowledge and skills to plan and recover from emergency events
  • The individuals that make up the community are aware of their risks and how it makes them vulnerable. They use this knowledge to prepare for any potential disasters
  • Steps are taken to ensure more resilient homes and families, and how to effectively employ their resources in an emergency
  • Active involvement of the people in making decisions to preserve the community structure
  • There is a champion who is trusted to engage other community members
  • They partner and coordinate with emergency organisations in the event of, or following adverse situations

Improving community resilience

Strategies to improve community resilience, social bonds and mental wellness include:13

  • Promote social cohesion: Communities can organise social activities, cultural events, and gatherings that reflect their inherent values and facilitate increased individual participation. These activities provide shared spaces and bases for building stronger connections
  • Encourage diversity and inclusivity: All members of the community irrespective of their age, race, gender and other identities should be valued. Communities should create spaces that have no tolerance for any form of discrimination or prejudice against members
  • Workshop training: To ensure that all members of the community are well-equipped with required knowledge, skills, and attributes to weather through challenges. Mediation, information on stress management and coping mechanisms should be readily available in the community
  • Enhanced access: Mental health support groups and services should be available to empower people. Primary care providers in the community can be collaborated with to ensure that services like social prescribers are well-integrated with health care delivery. Awareness and publicity on the availability of these services in the community is equally important for better utilisation
  • Community networking: Encourage the formation of groups and local meetings to nurture a sense of oneness amongst members of the group. The participation of members in the community promotes a better understanding of protocols in the event of a disaster. Social capital is increased and the social bond in the community is solidified through loyalty and reciprocity
  • Policy changes: Local, regional, and national policymakers need to advocate for better support towards mental health, social inclusion, and general development of the community. The challenges and contingencies of each community must be identified, and the results should be addressed through policy developed by the government. Social infrastructure, community services, and policies that reduce inequalities availing opportunities for all community members are necessary for community resilience

Summary

Building community resilience is vital to strengthening social bonds and improving interconnectedness. The outcome of stronger social bonds and social capital for members of a community is mental wellness. While there are various facets of community resilience, it is essential to ensure that no component is neglected in building a more resilient community.

The level of resilience in a community will generally hinge on the social support and services available, social cohesion, diversity and inclusivity, training on coping skills, availability, awareness, and access to local groups, and policy changes.

Recent events like the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has shown how invaluable community resilience and strong social bonds are for mental health. Investing further in community structures is essential and vital for a more resilient community.

References

  1. Yip W, Ge L, Ho AHY, Heng BH, Tan WS. Building community resilience beyond COVID-19: The Singapore way. The Lancet Regional Health - Western Pacific. 2021 Feb;7:100091.
  2. Hall CE, Wehling H, Stansfield J, South J, Brooks SK, Greenberg N, et al. Examining the role of community resilience and social capital on mental health in public health emergency and disaster response: a scoping review. BMC Public Health. 2023 Dec 12;23(1):1–13.
  3. Masson T, Bamberg S, Stricker M, Heidenreich A. “We can help ourselves”: does community resilience buffer against the negative impact of flooding on mental health? Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences. 2019;19(11):2371–84.
  4. de Deuge J, Hoang H, Kent K, Mond J, Bridgman H, Skromanis S, et al. Impacts of Community Resilience on the Implementation of a Mental Health Promotion Program in Rural Australia. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020 Mar 19;17(6):2031.
  5. Ma C, Qirui C, Lv Y. “One community at a time”: promoting community resilience in the face of natural hazards and public health challenges. BMC Public Health. 2023 Dec 14;23(1):1–15.
  6. First JM, Houston JB. The Mental Health Impacts of Successive Disasters: Examining the Roles of Individual and Community Resilience Following a Tornado and COVID-19. Clinical Social Work Journal. 2022 Jan 13;50(2):124–34.
  7. Alegría M, NeMoyer A, Falgàs Bagué I, Wang Y, Alvarez K. Social Determinants of Mental Health: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go. Current psychiatry reports. 2018 Sep 17;20(11):95.
  8. Vidovic D, Reinhardt GY, Hammerton C. Can Social Prescribing Foster Individual and Community Well-Being? A Systematic Review of the Evidence. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2021 May 15;18(10):5276.
  9. McCabe OL, Semon NL, Thompson CB, Lating JM, Everly GS, Perry CJ, et al. Building a National Model of Public Mental Health Preparedness and Community Resilience: Validation of a Dual-Intervention, Systems-Based Approach. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. 2014;8(6):511–26.
  10. Ozbay F, Johnson DC, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa : Township)). 2007 May;4(5):35–40.
  11. Chandra A, Acosta J, Meredith L, Sanches K, Stern S, Uscher-Pines L, et al. Understanding Community Resilience in the Context of National Health Security [Internet]. RAND; 2010. Available from: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/2010/RAND_WR737.pdf
  12. Milofsky C. Resilient Communities in Disasters and Emergencies: Exploring their Characteristics. Societies. 2023 Aug 12;13(8):188.
  13. Chandra A, Acosta J, Howard S, Uscher-Pines L, Williams M, Yeung D, et al. Building Community Resilience to Disasters: A Way Forward to Enhance National Health Security. Rand health quarterly. 2011 Mar 1;1(1):6.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Samuel Arum

Master of Science - MS, Advancing Physiotherapy Practice, Glasgow Caledonian University

Samuel is a physiotherapist with experience in primary and secondary healthcare roles. He has completed a master’s degree, working on multiple sclerosis related research. He sustains his interest in health education by writing research-led health articles.

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