We may often think of our own mental health and wellbeing as deeply personal, private affair. Call it rugged individualism or “Texas toughness,” mental health is often talked about as something that we each need to do for ourselves and on our own terms. However, this perspective often overlooks the invisible yet powerful drivers that spur us towards certain challenging emotions or difficult mental states.
Think about the times when you’ve experienced poor mental health. Have you gone through a traumatic event, like Hurricane Harvey? Did you lose a loved one? Did you find yourself unemployed for longer than you anticipated? Is your workplace creating impossible demands on your time? Have current events weighed on you deeply? All of these factors point to social factors that affect your mental health. Yes, you may feel moments of sadness, worry, or sleeplessness on a very intimate level, but these feelings cannot be separated from the rest of your life and from your natural responses to the world around you. Likewise, your family, colleagues, and community are also impacted by the current social, economic, and political climate around them. Feelings are both personal, and collective in nature. By linking personal feelings to communal issues, we can transform the way we think about mental health into something that is meaningfully shared— and therefore— something that can be acted on and improved upon a collective way. In this way, community mental health is a political issue.
Political action via civic engagement can improve community mental health, even before a single policy change is implemented. The simple act of coming together to work on shared goals can help us feel a sense of belonging and purpose, imagine ways that we can be a part of social change, and nuance public conversations about mental health in important ways. By becoming more involved in our communities, we can better represent that strengths and needs of those around us. We can hold our elected officials and other leaders accountable to enact policies that represent the interests of our families and of our communities. We can better ensure that these leaders and the policies they spearhead are truly beneficial to the mental wellbeing of all their constituents.
There is no executive order; there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.
–Barbara Jordan, 1976
To do so, we ought to advance thoughtful approaches that embrace local communities’ abilities to advocate for themselves and on their own terms. We need to build communities’ capacities to support each other, even as we continue to advocate for increasing public mental health services in Texas (via Medicaid expansion and by other legislative means). By addressing the structural causes of emotional, spiritual, and mental distress, I hope we will do our part to recognize the interdependence that forms the basis of community wellbeing and facilitate the collective action necessary to improve it.
Dr. Erica Hua Fletcher
Zorich Fellow in Mental Health Policy
Hope and Healing Center & Institute