Longing to Belong: Personal Social Capital and Psychological Distress in an Australian Coastal Region
FaHCSIA Social Policy Research Paper No. 39
160 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2010
Date Written: March 1, 2010
This study is a contribution to articulating and critically examining Australians’ perceptions about their levels of community participation, their thoughts and feelings about this, the effects it appears to have on their sense of connectedness to their community, and what it might mean for their mental health.
The research question for this project was: Within a disadvantaged rural Australian population, how frequently do people participate in different domains of community activities, to what extent do they consider their participation adequate and enjoyable, and how are these factors related to their levels of personal social cohesion and their mental health?
The Eurobodalla Study: The Eurobodalla Study, on which this research was based, was purpose-designed to test a specific operationalisation and measurement strategy. In addition to sociodemographic factors, breadth of community participation, perceptions about community participation (thoughts and feelings), personal sense of social cohesion and psychological distress were measured for this study.
Personal social capital and mental health: summary of study findings: The ‘Big 7’ - seven types of community participation including taking an active interest in current affairs, socialising with household members, friends, extended family and neighbours, taking part in organised community activities and religious observance (Berry, Rodgers & Dear 2007) - have been independently linked to better mental health. Using data from the Eurobodalla Study, authors investigated whether respondents considered their levels of participation to represent too little or too much time spent engaging in these seven types of participation and whether or not they enjoyed their participation.
Do people think they participate enough? The large majority of respondents reported that they considered their levels of participation to be to some degree inadequate. In contrast, only around one-in-five respondents reported spending too much time engaging in one or more of the seven types of participation that are associated with better mental health. Perceptions about engaging too little or too much were not related: people could perceive themselves as simultaneously spending too little time in some types of participation and too much in others.
Do people enjoy participating in the community? The very large majority of respondents particularly enjoyed at least some types of community participation. There was no type of participation that was the most commonly considered enjoyable. Not enjoying participating was rare. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents reported that there were no types of participation that they found particularly unenjoyable. Religious observance stood out as the type of participation least likely to be nominated as particularly enjoyable and the most commonly endorsed as unenjoyable
Is breadth of participation linked to people’s perceptions about it? Those who reported greater breadth of participation were somewhat more likely than their peers to also report enjoying participating. Breadth of participation thus appears to be a different concept from perceptions about the adequacy and enjoyableness of participation, with the latter two constructs adding to knowledge about community participation.
Is community participation linked to social cohesion? Higher levels of participation and favourable perceptions about participation were strongly related to higher levels of cohesion
Is personal social capital related to mental health? Findings of the study were robustly consistent with the social capital explanation for the link between community participation and psychological distress, and not supportive of the other hypotheses that were tested. Personal social capital has been defined as a form of social capital that is a property of the inherent personal characteristics and behaviours of individuals. Authors expected that community participation would not be directly predictive of distress but would have a mediated relationship with distress via personal social cohesion. Authors found robust support for this hypothesis. Authors also found strong support for their expectation that breadth of participation and perceptions about participation would, in combination, be related to personal social cohesion and that personal social cohesion would be negatively associated with general psychological distress. Authors found higher levels of cohesion to be extremely strongly related to lower levels of distress.
Implications for policy and practice: In addressing certain major theoretical and methodological issues in research into social capital and mental health, the present study has shown that advances in the understanding of the concept can be achieved and that these can be interpreted in terms of their implications for policy and practice.
Not just any type of participation will do: Because of its associations with increased social cohesion, encouraging participation in the community could be a safe and effective mental health promotion strategy. It is an appealing policy lever: it is relatively conceptually and practically straightforward, cheap, easy, quick, low risk (if appropriate types of participation are encouraged) and highly amenable to intervention. But not any type of participation will deliver policy goals, and some risk doing quite the opposite. Further, rather than encouraging very extensive involvement in just one or two types of participation, breadth of participation across as many of the Big 7 types as possible would be more effective in achieving mental health and community benefits. It must be reiterated, however, that the focus must remain on personal agency and choice within an environment in which broad participation is facilitated and encouraged, without compliance demands.
Fun as a policy lever: Even when appropriately targeted and delivered, encouraging breath of participation across particular types is not sufficient alone. To derive mental health benefits from increasing levels and breadth of community participation, it is essential for participation to be perceived as enjoyable and sufficient. It would be counterproductive to encourage people to engage in types or levels of community participation that they perceive to be unenjoyable or excessively demanding of their time.
Tailoring social capital interventions: Women and men (and, quite possibly, other groups) need different policy instruments to extract mental health benefits from enhancing levels of community participation. Most people would benefit from higher levels of participation overall, from greater breadth of participation, and from enjoying their participation. But this study has shown that pressure on people to do too much, or on men to do things they do not enjoy, could be counterproductive for mental health. In addition, social capital might have a harmful effect on mental health for some groups (Almedom 2005), perhaps resulting from what are sometimes perceived as restrictive social norms (Whitley & McKenzie 2005) or burdensome obligations.
Conclusion: This study has related different aspects of community participation to personal social cohesion and modelled pathways among concepts. Findings indicate that the personal social capital hypothesis is a plausible and potentially powerful explanation for the link between community participation and mental health. Participating in the social and civic life of the community is important for mental health, primarily because of the increase in personal social cohesion with which it is associated. Previous research has found that only some types of participation are related to mental health, and that the strength and direction of association differs among those that are related. This study has confirmed the importance of breadth of community participation across specific types, and has also found that perceptions of participating too little are also important (negatively) for mental health. We have found that the most important aspect of community participation is enjoying participating.
It is essential in developing policy with respect to social capital and mental health to ensure the decision-making process builds on sound evidence (De Silva et al. 2005) in which concepts have been systematically defined and appropriately measured (Whitley & McKenzie 2005).
The findings of the present study will assist in the design of inexpensive, safe and effective social capital interventions, focused on broadly-based and enjoyable community participation. They will also help inform the design of future studies of social capital and mental health.
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