Neighbourliness: local connections and mental wellbeing
Neighbours Day Aotearoa, 24-25 March 2012
By Amanda Bradley, Northern Development Manager, Mental Health Foundation
Robert Putnam (2001) describes social capital as "the collective value of all ‘social networks' and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other." The Mental Health Foundation is interested in the links between social capital and its potential to support flourishing communities and to improve positive mental health. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that neighbourliness helps to build positive social capital and contribute to the improved wellbeing of communities, whanau and individuals (Hothi, Bacon, Brophy & Mulgan, 2011).
The impact of decreasing social capital and increasing social fragmentation on health and wellbeing outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable communities, is becoming better documented and understood, both internationally and locally.
With some major indicators of civil engagement and social cohesion declining in the western world (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2011) and health inequalities increasing (Sharpe, 2008), it makes sense to support simple, low cost interventions, like Neighbours Day, that can be implemented locally to help build social capital, and contribute to positive mental health.
The Mental Health Foundation believes that local community projects and campaigns like Neighbours Day Aotearoa can contribute to improving trust among neighbours and increasing feelings of belonging and social connectedness in local communities, all of which help us flourish and live meaningful lives.
New Zealand is a mobile society; home ownership is decreasing and the proportion of the population living in rented or temporary accommodation is growing. In 2006 more than half of New Zealanders had moved in the previous five years and a quarter of us in the last year.
The New Zealand Social Report (Ministry of Social Development, 2010) illustrates the declining voter turnout of the eligible population of New Zealand. Voter participation in general elections, one measure of civil engagement, has fallen over the last 30 years from 89% in 1984 to a low of 69% in the most recent 2011 general election.
The Social Report also describes social connectedness as "the relationships people have with others and the benefits these relationships can bring to the individual as well as to society" (p. 110).
Social connectedness is fostered when family relationships are positive, and when people have the skills and opportunities to make friends and to interact constructively with others. Good health, employment, and feeling safe and secure all increase people's chances of developing positive social networks that help improve their lives. (p. 110)
It uses six indicators to measure social connectedness:
- telephone and internet access in the home
- contact with family and friends
- contact between young people and their parents
- trust in others
- loneliness, and
- voluntary work.
Most of these indicators show improvement over time and compare reasonably well internationally. Inequalities though are still evident, for example Maori, Pacific and Asian people are more likely than Europeans to experience loneliness, a risk factor for developing depression (e.g. Hagerty & Williams, 1999).
There is evidence to support that some populations are more at risk of the effects of social fragmentation (for example loneliness and mental illness) including; children and adolescents (Morgan & Haglund, 2009), older people (Gale, Dennison, Cooper & Sayer, 2011; Walker & Hiller, 2007) and unemployed women (Ivory, Collings, Blakely & Dew, 2011).
A review of the New Zealand literature of neighbourhoods and health (Stevenson, Pearce, Blakely, Ivory & Witten, 2009) concluded that neighbourhood context matters and has an impact on health. Improving population health outcomes and reducing inequalities are good reasons to gain a better understanding of the relationship between neighbourhood characteristics (including social capital and access to resources) and individual health outcomes.
The New Zealand Families Commission has stated that "the more social capital that exists in a community, the greater the capacity of that community to build further stocks of social capital for the wellbeing of the collective." (Goodrich & Sampson, 2008, p. 42)
Build local connections
Thriving neighbourhoods are connected
The Mental Health Foundation uses the Five Ways to Wellbeing report from the new economics foundation (nef) (Aked, Marks, Cordon, & Thompson, 2008). The report was written to communicate the evidence base for improving people's wellbeing and developed five simple key messages to promote (connect, give, take notice, learn and be active), one of which encourages building and strengthening connections between people.
Connect... With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day. (p. 3)
Local communities, including neighbourhoods, play a significant role in wellbeing and our daily connections with others. Active engagement in neighbourly acts that build social connections and social support can create buffers to chronic stressors and help us conform to healthy social norms, therefore having a positive impact on life expectancy (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2011).
The Mental Health Foundation encourages opportunities (formal and informal) to build relationships and connections in local communities with the goal of improving the positive mental health of populations.
Thriving neighbourhoods are resilient and sustainable
It is well established that the environment has an influence on wellbeing; pollutants and negative features e.g. unkempt parks and playgrounds, noise and rubbish, can act as psychosocial stressors as well as affect our physical health (Carter, Williams, Paterson & Iustini, 2008).
When communities are empowered to act on and address such issues, a sense of control and self-determination over local circumstances contribute to feelings of belonging and wellbeing (Hothi, Bacon, Brophy & Mulgan, 2011). As participation in civil engagement and other acts that strengthen cooperative democratic processes increase, so does a sense of personal mental wellbeing (Walker, 2002).
Similarly, behaving in a sustainable way including valuing nature intrinsically and promoting non-material sources of happiness can also build social capital and enhance positive mental health of individuals and communities and reduce the impact of mental illness (Mental Health Foundation New Zealand, 2012).
A report written by the Council of Social Services and Healthy Christchurch (Torstonson & Whitaker, 2011) on community resilience after the September 2010 earthquake, summarises two main themes of community resilience:
- the importance of local organisations and groups to respond to the changing needs of their communities in changed ways (being resourceful and flexible) and
- creating a sense of connectedness through sharing information and stories, both to gain access to resources and for emotional support.
The Mental Health Foundation considers that developing opportunities for engagement in community action at a variety of levels supports neighbourhoods to become more resilient, especially at times of crisis or rapid change.
Thriving neighbourhoods are safe
The 2010 Social Report describes both safety and security as fundamental to wellbeing and that the costs of not addressing the issues of safety affect the whole of society including increased costs to health care, law enforcement as well as a negative impact on the capacity of individuals to contribute meaningfully to society.
The report also discusses that fear of crime (perceived risk) is not always linked to the actual risk of becoming a victim of crime. This fear can contribute to anxiety and behaviour modification that could be detrimental to our mental and physical wellbeing e.g. not going out.
Feelings of trust and belonging are an essential part of a safe neighbourhood and contribute to building social capital (Goodrich & Sampson, 2008). Neighbourhoods with high levels of trust are cooperative, community minded and resilient. Trust at a local level can be evident in simple neighbourly acts e.g. keeping an eye on children playing or feeding your pets when someone goes on a short holiday (Goodrich & Sampson, 2008).
When local community relationships are built on acceptance, respect and trust, it is easier to collaborate on projects that work towards improving local quality of life, creating a sense of control and influence over the circumstances of the neighbourhood (Hothi, Bacon, Brophy & Mulgan, 2011). The Mental Health Foundation encourages opportunities to build trusting relationships in neighbourhoods.
The Mental Health Foundation's vision is for a society where all people flourish. We view mental health as a positive resource that can lead to individual and family and whanau resilience and improved social relationships, and allow us to respond effectively to the global challenges before us.
It makes sense to support the promotion of simple activities like neighbourliness that build local connections, nurture trusting relationships and create opportunities for local participation and cooperation all of which build social capital and mental wellbeing.
- Join Neighbours Day Aotearoa (NDA) and celebrate neighbourliness this weekend.
- Neighbours Day Aotearoa 30 second promotion video
- Neighbours Day Aotearoa Facebook page
- Listen to Amanda Bradley from the Foundation being interviewed by Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB) on NDA.
Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C., & Thompson, S. (2008). Five ways to wellbeing. A report presented to the Foresight Project on communicating the evidence base for improving people's well-being. London: New Economics Foundation.
Carter, S., Williams, M., Paterson, J., & Iusitini, L. (2009). Do perceptions of neighbourhood problems contribute to maternal health?: Findings from the Pacific Islands Families study. Health & Place, 15, 622-630.
Gale, C. R., Dennison, E. M., Cooper, C., & Sayer, A. A. (2011). Neighbourhood environment and positive mental health in older people: The Hertfordshire Cohort Study. Health & Place, 17, 867-874.
Goodrich, C. G., & Sampson, K. A. (2008). Strengthening rural families. An exploration of industry transformation, community and social capital. Blue skies report no. 23/08. Wellington: Families Commission.
Hagerty, B. M., & Williams, R. A. (1999). The effects of sense of belonging, social support, conflict, and loneliness on depression. Nursing Research, 48(4), 215-219.
Hothi, M., Bacon, N., Brophy, M., & Mulgan, G. (2011). Neighbourliness + empowerment = wellbeing. Is there a formula for happy communities? London: The Young Foundation.
Ivory, V. C., Collings, S. C., Blakely, T., & Dew, K. (2011). When does neighbourhood matter? Multilevel relationships between neighbourhood social fragmentation and mental health. Social Science & Medicine, 72, 1993-2002.
Ministry of Social Development. (2010). 2010 The social report. Te pūrongo orange tangata. Wellington: Author.
Moran, A., & Haglund, B. J. A. (2009). Social capital does matter for adolescent health: evidence from the English HBSC study. Health Promotion International, 24(4), 363-372.
Putnam, R.D., (2001). Social Capital: Measurement and Consequences. Canadian Journal of Policy Research, 2, 41-51.
Stevenson, A., Pearce, J., Blakely, T., Ivory, V., & Witten, K., (2009). Neighbourhoods and health: A review of the New Zealand literature. New Zealand Geographer, 65, 211-221.
Torstonson, S., & Whitaker, M., (2011). Supporting community resilience in post-quake Christchurch. Christchurch: Council of Social Services and Healthy Christchurch.
Walker, P. (2002). We, the people. Developing a new democracy. A NEF pocketbook. London: New Economics Foundation.
Walker, R. B., & Hiller, J. E. (2007). Places and health: A qualitative study to explore how older women living alone perceive the social and physical dimensions of their neighbourhoods. Social Science & Medicine, 65, 1154-1165.