Mental Health Requires A Strong And Safe Community

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Picture me at my desk, working on these pages. Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my husband’s death from cancer. Continuing on this personal note, I have Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. This means that any positive or negative excitement results in physical pain somewhere in my body the next day.

Yesterday was July 4, 2000, American Independence Day. To celebrate, many of my neighbors set off fireworks. Some sounded like bombs creating noise pollution. All created air pollution. Most startled and frightened me. All startled and frightened my dog and two cats, creating chaos in my home.

This could be written as a funny story, but it is not. Instead I wish to use this as a lead in to the subject of community. The fact is: I do not know my neighbors and they do not know me.

Lack of community, isolation, ‘anomie’ the social scientists call it. Who could I call? What do I do? Would their fireworks get closer and closer to my house? Would my house catch on fire? If I said something to them, would they become angry with me?

I became angry when I felt helpless to stop them. My anger increased as I realized how unimportant my feelings are to my neighbors. When you do not know someone, you ignore him or her. You do not know their needs, feelings, and boundaries.

Boundaries are the spaces between people which define what belongs to your versus what belongs to me. Boundaries are very important in community, since boundaries tell us how to treat each other. Boundaries make us civilized, but they are not always the same for everyone.

The purpose of community is for people to come together to cooperatively deal with life’s problems. Problems occur in many ways without a strong community. You have loneliness, depression, boredom and anxiety from the actual lack of connectedness with other people around you.

In addition, without community, people lack the ability to solve community problems. Then the community stressors serve as actual barriers to building community and solving problems. Poverty, crime, prejudice and discrimination keep people separate, preventing community.

Without community, there are no community resources to meet the needs of the people involved.

So I thought we should electronically discuss community. This community. Our community here, the one we want for mental health matters.

The Anti-Defamation League lists 101 ways for You To Build a Prejudice Free Zone on their website. I would like us to think about number 97. It says, “Make sure your public facilities accommodate the needs of all residents.”

Paraphrased and applied to us, we need to make sure our mental health matters community accommodates the needs of everyone who wishes to be here. The process of fulfilling that statement is called, in professional language, building ‘cohesion’.

Cohesion involves a coming together and connecting.

Connecting is that moment of contact when people see and hear one another. On his “Beyond Prejudice” Website, Jim Cole lists six myths about prejudice. Myths About Prejudice

Myth number Four is valuable to us at this point. I’d like to quote part of it for us to think about: “People need to come together with equal status and equal power, they need to not be competing with each other so that they do not benefit from the other’s misfortune. They need to come together doing something that is cooperative and successful.”

We begin by communicating with one another. Communication

Communication, of course, is talking and listening. You can also communicate by writing and reading. Two critical aspects of communication for building community are:

  • Paying attention to the other people.
  • Being aware that others have paid attention to you.

We do this by really thinking about what everyone else is saying or writing.

In small groups and classes, I have facilitated this process by asking each person one at a time the following questions:

  1. What do you hope to accomplish here?
  2. What do you need to do to accomplish this?
  3. What would make this a safe place for you to do what you need to do?

Then we discuss these issues as long as we need to. The purpose of a discussion would be to establish consensus. Consensus happens when a harmonious agreement is reached between people. This can only occur if everyone’s opinions are respected. No person’s opinion is more important. In situations of consensus, people still disagree, but they agree to disagree. In this fashion, people can respect one another and dialogue safely.

If you want, please respond to the three questions above. I’ll read all the responses and share them with you. That way we can work toward building a community that is safe and productive for all of you.

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