After practising clinical psychology for a year, we noticed a couple of things about us, as human beings and as members of society. The first thing that we have always known, but now we can pinpoint, is that we are taught from a very young age that being competitive and doing things by ourselves will make us successful, but if we do not learn to connect with others and collaborate as a community we cannot go very far. The second thing we noticed is that no matter who we are and what we do, every single one of us needs love, understanding, compassion, patience and a sense of belonging, and most people try to hide or ignore those universal human needs because we have been taught it makes us weak.
We have engraved "survival of the fittest" in our behaviours and in our minds, and we believe we can thrive by competing for limited resources, which creates a society in which everyone wants to be better than the others and that often only one person can rise to the top. When we have that mentality, we create a society that is divided. It becomes a "me vs everyone", but that is exhausting and leads to feeling lonely and powerless. However, we do not survive and grow because each one of us has all the resources or abilities; we thrive because we rely and trust on the capabilities of other people and because we learn to give the knowledge and abilities we have and receive what others are able to give us. In short, we built communities and support groups to help us develop and overcome hardship because we are stronger together.
It is important to point out that, as Suzanne Goldsmith stated, “communities are not [only] built of friends, or of groups with similar styles and tastes, or even of people who like and understand each other. They are built of people who feel they are part of something that is bigger than themselves: a shared goal or enterprise, like righting a wrong, or building a road, raising children, living honourably, or worshipping a god. To build community requires only the ability to see value in others, to look at them and see a potential partner in one’s enterprise”.
The members of strong communities feel a sense of belonging and identification that prompts each one to believe: “I am part of something”, which can have a positive effect on physical and mental health. The feeling of belonging provides the chance to connect with others outside of our family circle, but also gives a sense of transcendence, in other words, it offers its members the opportunity to feel part of something bigger and greater than themselves. Furthermore, it gives a feeling of unconditional acceptance that increases the self-esteem of those who feel that they are contributing to a cause in which they believe, and the belief that one is valuable to others and the actions that go beyond oneself can prevent feelings of isolation, depression or distress.
It is no surprise that a strong sense of community is beneficial for mental health and well-being because a community that provides security, safety, and trust empowers people and is invaluable to promoting all its members' growth. Moreover, connecting with peers with good values and sharing experiences shapes the way we interact with the world, promotes empathy and self-regulation, develops relationship skills, and encourages responsible decision-making. These relationships also give strength to the bonds between all community members and foster tolerance, empathy, and respect between them. On the contrary, those who don't feel connected may be less inclined to act in healthy ways that help themselves and others. It is important to point out that each of us can increase our sense of community by doing activities that help us form interpersonal relationships, such as volunteering or playing a sport.
But, how does that relate to substance use prevention? Well, first and most importantly, good communities are a fundamental source of protective factors for children, adolescents, adults and even older adults. This means that communities can significantly impact the lives of the people living and interacting in them, increasing the likelihood of having a safe and happy development. A strong community has clear and positive norms and expectations of behaviour that shape how people act; furthermore, it offers opportunities to engage with other people, learn from them, and ask for their support. On the other hand, seeing the positive interactions of the community, having good role models and friends, and understanding everyone has a role in fulfilling helps people develop fundamental life skills and find the sense of their actions.
According to the International Standards on Substance Use Prevention, there are science-based effective prevention systems that take place in communities because of the impact they have on each family and individual. For instance, a community that organises and creates substance-free events like concerts, parties, or game nights is bonding and giving people spaces where they are not exposed to substances and do not feel pressure to consume.
Communities can also help improve people's mental health by reducing stigma and creating safe spaces for people to talk and express themselves. It is important to point out that sometimes people in communities do not realise how much impact that can have in a person's life but, as stated previously, even allowing them to interact and feel part of something can give a sense of belonging and support that is essential to develop skills that will help its members overcome difficulties.
Borough of Dunmore Pennsylvania (2017). The Importance of Having Strong Communities. Dunmore Borough. https://dunmorepa.gov/news/importance-strong-communities/#:~:text=Having%20a%20sense%20of%20community,have%20a%20sense%20of%20community.
Head to Health (2018). Connecting with community. Australian Government. https://www.headtohealth.gov.au/meaningful-life/connectedness/community
McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6–23. https://doi.org/10.1002/1520-6629
Ohmer, M, L., Meadowcroft, P., Freed, K. and Lewis, E. (2009). Community Gardening and Community Development: Individual, Social and Community Benefits of a Community Conservation Program. Journal of Community Practice,17(4), 377-399, https://doi.org/10.1080/10705420903299961
Orte, C., Coone, A., Gomila, M. A., & Pascual, B. (2020). Evidence-based practice and training needs in drug prevention: The interest and viability of the European prevention curriculum in prevention training in Spain. Adiktologie, 20, 37-46. https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/best-practice/european-prevention-curriculum-eupc_en
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2019). Sense of Community. https://www.rwjf.org/en/cultureofhealth/taking-action/making-health-a-shared-value/sense-of-community.html#:~:text=Residents%20of%20socially%20connected%20communities,promote%20well%2Dbeing%20for%20all.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime & World Health Organization (2018). International Standards on Drug Use Prevention: second updated edition. Vienna: UNODC and WHO. http://www.add-resources.org/unodc-international-standards-on-drug-use-prevention.5896450-315775.html
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2022). Listen First. United Nations. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/listen-first/World Bank (2022) Sense of Community. Communities4Dev https://collaboration.worldbank.org/content/sites/collaboration-for-development/en/groups/communities4Dev/blogs.entry.html/2021/03/22/sense_of_community-wyUE.html