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The power of community: How coming together can improve your health



The role of communities in promoting health and wellbeing is receiving more recognition than ever. Considering social factors that influence people’s lives is an often overlooked aspect of healthcare. This means that people can feel unsupported, unsafe or isolated, while experiencing health issues. This can make it harder to adhere to treatment as well as directly physically affecting health.


Community-based support intends to create social environments that encourage people to improve their wellbeing and quality of life. This can be accomplished through a range of methods – activities, support groups, peer support and volunteering.


Public Health England (PHE) has recognised the potential within communities and have set out to harness the benefits by introducing community-centred projects in non-medical settings. The aim is to create connected and resilient communities to improve overall population health and reduce health inequalities. PHE has introduced numerous initiatives that have been successful, one of which is a community led BME women’s group offering opportunities for weekly meetings and health and wellbeing activities. Involvement in the groups led to better health and wellbeing among women and consequently fewer visits to the GP [1].


Another ongoing project is a scheme called Champions Show the Way delivered by a local NHS service in the UK. People in the community volunteer as health champions and run activities that fall into one of four activities:

1) Creative activities

2) Walking and gentle physical activity groups

3) Mental wellbeing and social support groups

4) Long term condition peer support groups


In 2018/19 alone, more than 1700 people attended the activities offered and 98.5% of people that gave feedback said they were taking action and doing more that benefits their health and wellbeing [2]. By providing a platform for individuals to connect and engage with others, social connections and a strong sense of belonging are fostered, both of which are linked with better physical and mental health [3].


But what is it about community that makes it so beneficial for health? For one, healthcare services have not always been responsive to individual needs, leaving many people reluctant to seek help. Community-centred approaches provide a pathway to connecting with and offering support to marginalised and vulnerable people who may not otherwise access healthcare services. People are more likely to engage with groups where there is a shared identity and understanding, as is offered by the PHE initiatives.


The social context and communities that people are a part of also have a huge influence on lifestyle choices. People are more inclined to adopt healthier habits if they feel part of a community and the environment primes making healthier choices. There’s an element of influence from others that helps with making change [4]. It’s a lot harder to sustain healthier habits when it feels like you’re on your own.


Another asset of communities is social connection - we know that isolation can have a significant impact on health. Being isolated is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and illnesses such as pneumonia [5]. A part of this is explained by the fact that unhealthy behaviours are more prevalent if isolated but also the impact of stress is amplified. You can read more about the protective effect of social connection on stress here.


How can you tap into the power of community to improve your health?


References

[1] Public Health England. Building Inclusive Communities: Hangleton and Knoll Multi Cultural Women’s Group. https://ukhsa.koha-ptfs.co.uk/cgi-bin/koha/opac-retrieve-file.pl?id=9f7b6f5b3b1340a82b91a4a285e982b5



[3] Michalski, C. A., Diemert, L. M., Helliwell, J. F., Goel, V., & Rosella, L. C. (2020). Relationship between sense of community belonging and self-rated health across life stages. SSM - population health, 12, 100676. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100676

[4] Umberson, D., Crosnoe, R., & Reczek, C. (2010). Social Relationships and Health Behavior Across Life Course. Annual review of sociology, 36, 139–157. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-120011


[5] Naito, R., Leong, D. P., Bangdiwala, S. I., McKee, M., Subramanian, S. V., Rangarajan, S., ... & Yusuf, S. (2021). Impact of social isolation on mortality and morbidity in 20 high-income, middle-income and low-income countries in five continents. BMJ global health, 6(3), e004124.


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