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By Christine Williams, MA, Communications at Prevention Institute

Our environment directly affects mental health.
We know that our environment directly impacts our mental health. And yet, when we talk about mental health, we usually focus on how to treat individuals rather than how to design community environments (i.e. roads, safe parks, job opportunities, and quality, affordable housing) for optimal mental health. Disinvestment in housing and schools, and limited employment opportunities can lead to poor mental health outcomes, like chronic stress and heightened symptoms of many mental health issues. Treating individuals one at a time in such circumstances is critically important, but we can do more.

We can prevent the exacerbation of mental health challenges.
We need an “upstream” approach to mental health—by zooming out to assess and improve entire neighborhoods, we can prevent many potential mental health crises before they occur, and we can do this for every individual in the community. While we need clinical treatment and long-term recovery supports to manage many conditions, we can and should prevent symptoms from occurring or intensifying by developing communities that are healthy, safe, and equitable for everyone.

We build our community, and then it builds us.
If communities are safe, affordable, and equitable, those qualities will affect the mental health of every individual in the community. And the reverse is also true. Some of the community factors that most affect mental health and wellbeing include:

  • Look, Feel & Safety: A deteriorating environment can deteriorate the mental health of community members, while cared-for sidewalks, trees, and local public art uplift.
  • Housing: High-quality, safe, and affordable housing correlates with reductions in reported symptoms of depression.
  • Arts & Cultural Expression: Music, dance, and visual arts foster healthy expression and mental wellbeing through creativity and outlets for emotional healing.
  • Social Networks & Trust: Strong community relationships correspond with improvements in mental health and academic achievement, and lower rates of homicide, suicide, and substance misuse.
  • Fair Employment: Unemployment is a major contributor to anxiety and depression.

A resilient community needs a strong foundation.
When the above community factors (jobs, housing, social networks) are rooted in values like connectedness, dignity, and hope, it strengthens healing and builds resilience. We must reinforce these values, which Prevention Institute calls “Pillars of Wellbeing,” for communities to flourish and thrive. Six Pillars of Wellbeing are necessary for community resilience:

  • Belonging/Connectedness: Feeling part of a community; belief that you are accepted as you are; having meaningful roles in social life.
  • Control of Destiny: Sense of purpose; the ability to influence the events that shape life’s circumstances; ability to engage and act.
  • Dignity: Sense of one’s own value; feeling worthy of honor and respect; living in a climate of mutual respect.
  • Hope: A reassuring belief that something better is possible and achievable.
  • Safety: Experience of security interpersonally, emotionally, and with the environment; possession of a sense of stability.
  • Trust: Belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of self and others.

Christine Williams is on the Communications team at Prevention Institute. If you would like to learn more about primary community-level prevention, social determinants of mental health, and Pillars of Wellbeing, read Prevention Institute’s paper, Back to Our Roots.