We’ve probably all heard of self-care by now. It’s become very popular in the last few years, and with good reason – it’s beneficial for our mental health. But self-care shouldn’t replace community care. We can absolutely care for ourselves (and it’s important that we do!) but that doesn’t erase the importance of connecting with other people, caring for others, and being cared for.
WHAT IS COMMUNITY CARE?
Community care is all about offering care and support to one another, and reaching out for support when we need it. One definition is that ‘Community care is basically any care provided by a single individual to benefit other people in their life’. Another is that ‘[community care] allows community members to lean on each other when they are not OK and opens up a dialogue that enables helping one another’.
Community care can encompass all sorts of things including being an ally to disadvantaged groups, volunteering, building connections with our friends and family, taking a meal round to a neighbour who’s recently bereaved, donating food or money to causes that need them, going to a protest or rally for something we believe in, or connecting with others online.
Loneliness is on the rise. Historically it’s something that has mainly affected elderly populations, but nowadays it affects people across the spectrum. In the UK, over 9 million people are affected by loneliness including 1.2 million older people, around 43% of 17-25 year-olds, 24% of parents, and 50% of disabled people. 1 in 4 Americans state that they have no close friends – nobody who they feel comfortable confiding in. Feeling lonely can come with significant health risks. It’s now thought to be as bad for us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Our current societal structure isn’t as community-based as it has been in the past. We often have more fragmented families, more distant communities, and conduct more of our social lives through screens instead of face to face. We move jobs and move around the country (or the world!) more than we did in the past, which can mean that we repeatedly have to start all over again when getting to know the people we’re geographically close to. To build a solid group of people around us, and to feel part of our local community, we sometimes have to be more proactive and put in quite a lot more effort than we might have done in days gone by.
WHY IS CONNECTION IMPORTANT?
Feeling a sense of connection can improve both our physical and mental health which, in turn, improves our quality of life. People who feel a sense of connection are less likely to experience anxiety and depression, are at a lower risk of high blood pressure, have improved levels of resilience, higher self-esteem, and a stronger immune system.
WHY COMMUNITY CARE?
Community care can give us a sense of connection and purpose. It can give us a reason to get up and leave the house and help us to feel useful – both of which can lift our mood. Feeling part of our community, and carrying out community care can encourage us to push our comfort zone, and help us to feel empowered. Having people around us who we know and trust can provide us with a safety net and a source of support at times when we struggle.
Self-care is a fantastic thing to weave into our lives, but unfortunately, we might reach the point where even the most basic self-care feels impossible and we need to rope in some reinforcements. Depression can be stifling, and there are many other conditions which can prevent us from living fully independent lives whether that loss of independence is temporary or permanent. We all need help now and again, and there is absolutely no shame in asking for that help.
WHAT IF I’M NOT A SOCIAL PERSON?
Some of us are not particularly big fans of socialising. We might experience social anxiety or another condition that affects how comfortable we are around other people. Some of us are very introverted and perfectly happy in our own company. But however difficult we find social interaction, and however happy we are in our own company, we all need some social connection.
Community care does not mean that we have to spend a large amount of time with big groups of people if that’s not our ‘thing’. It can encompass all sorts of different activities with different numbers of people. Some of us might prefer to connect with people on a more intimate level. We might have one or two close friends that we’re comfortable around, or live a very family-based life. For those of us who are particularly anxious around people and find social interaction exhausting, we might have people in our lives who don’t really count as ‘people’ because we feel so comfortable around them that they don’t drain us to the extent that other social interactions do.
If talking is something that we don’t like doing, then we could look into doing a community activity. When we have a job to do, we can often crack on with it without having to face too much chitchat if that’s what we prefer.
Sometimes any interaction with other people feels like too much. In these cases, we could look into volunteer options that work largely behind a screen. We could also consider giving financially to a charity, or giving to food banks if we can afford to – this can help us to feel connected to others. Pets and other animals can work wonders, too. Our interactions with them can help us to feel more connected and less lonely without the pressure of getting dressed or finding the words required for a conversation.
Scientists have found that our sense of connection is internal and is subjective. What this means is that for those of us who aren’t so extroverted and don’t want to spend as much time around people, we might find that we don’t need as much social interaction to feel the same sense of connection as someone who enjoys a lot of social activity needs.
HOW CAN I GET INVOLVED IN STUFF?
It can be difficult to know where to start when thinking about getting stuck into community things, especially if we’re new to an area and don’t know anyone who lives near us, or we work from home and don’t have a lot of social interaction in our life.
Thinking about the sorts of things we might like to get involved in can be a good start. Do we want to join an exercise class? Volunteer somewhere? Play a giant game of scrabble?
Our local magazine, if we have one, parish or city council website, or village/community hall may well contain adverts for different things that are happening near us. We could also see if our local shop or post office has any notices up (if we have one). Some areas now have their own Facebook group, too. If we’ve recently moved to an area then we could pop round and introduce ourselves to our neighbours. Some of us follow a religion – finding the nearest religious building that fits our faith and denomination can introduce us to a whole new family of people and often will provide a regular programme of events. If we’re looking for volunteering then checking out do-it.org, contacting local schools, or taking a look at the Scout or Guide websites can help us to find local opportunities. For those of us who are sporty, our local gym or leisure centre should be able to give us information on any classes that take place. We could also have a look at Good Gym which is a combination of running and volunteering. If we fancy learning some new skills then we could see if there are any local skill swap groups or whether our nearest university or college runs any classes. In terms of meeting others who are in a similar position to us, parents could try baby and toddler groups or meeting parents at the school gates and carers could see whether our local carers centre offer any support groups. For support groups specific to a diagnosis we have, it’s often worth asking our GP or browsing the website of a charity who support that diagnosis and contacting them if we can’t see anything to find out whether there is any community support available to us. To meet others who have similar interests to us, we could take a look at meetup.com or Bumble.
If we don’t fancy leaving the house then we could have a look at any online opportunities. There might be an online support group or forums that we could help out with or attend, or a cause might be looking for a writer or someone to plug in their finances.
The joy of living in a diverse world is that if we want to, we can usually find someone else who we can relate to, and there will normally be an opportunity somewhere that suits us (even if we come across it unexpectedly!).
Community care is vital when it comes to helping us to thrive. It’s a really important part of the ‘looking after ourselves’ package. However, it’s important to remember that in the same way that self-care isn’t a replacement for community care, community care isn’t a replacement for self-care. The two are not mutually exclusive and, to live our best life, we often need to combine them. If we’re supporting others then we need to make sure that we’re also looking after ourselves and prioritising our own health. We are important and we matter – we deserve help and support, too.
Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.