Australia is currently facing unprecedented devastation through both bushfires and drought. It’s hard to escape the images, where in some regions frightening fires are raging through towns at a pace that’s difficult to imagine. With the drought there are vast amounts of desolate land, an overwhelming number of poorly nourished (and dying/dead) animals and so many heartbroken people – many have lost all they have. A lot of the images are challenging to see, and often invoke an emotional response that is difficult to regulate.
The causes of these significant climatic events are for others to discuss and debate, however for this piece, I will simply acknowledge that the levels of drought and fire that we are seeing have not been seen before in this country in my lifetime (I am 45 years old).
Of course, as it often is when people are faced with adversity, as well as devastation, what also emerges are heart-warming, comforting, and kind acts, as people who may not ordinarily come together, are involuntarily moved into community. It’s the type of community though that one could and would not want to plan. Yet when it does occur, a different level of humanity often surfaces.
By coming together in this way, people often find strength, determination and a path toward hope that things will be OK. Some may refer to this as resilience, however, as I posited in a recent post, perhaps this better framed as ‘resiliencing’; that is, something that emerges and continues over time rather than something that is time stamped.
If we put these two ideas together, that is community and resiliencing, we might consider this as ‘social resiliencing’, a term that my friend Gab Carlton first established through her reflections on social psychology and community wellbeing.
So, let’s break this down a little further by first exploring the question; what is community?
Understandably, there are numerous definitions and perspectives on this question, all derived from our different epistemologies and worldviews. One definition however that I find helpful, particularly in the context of the tragedies described above, is from Peter Westoby in his book Creating Us, where he describes:
Community, then, is not understood as synonymous with neighbourhood, or place. Community is instead something that emerges, as a felt experience, or a social phenomenon, when people create it together: when they are in relationship within one another, drawn together by a shared concern (reading, refugee issues, reconciliation, wanting to garden and so forth). It might occur in neighbourhoods, villages, towns, places; but community is not synonymous with those words. (p. 11)
Westoby’s view is that, like ‘resiliencing’, community too is something that emerges; that is, it is dynamic and ongoing. Westoby’s main thesis in the book is of the role of soul in community work, and there is not the space in this piece to explore this further, however, one point that Westoby does make throughout, is of the wellbeing benefits that occur when people share in relationship with others; that is, in community.
How else may we know that coming together in community is beneficial for our wellbeing and indeed how is it linked to our ‘resiliencing’, particularly in the face of adversity such as significant bushfires?
…one of the world’s largest longitudinal studies of the mental health and social connections of disaster survivors has also uncovered clear evidence of what helps people to cope, including that the more social ties people have the more resilient they are.
…led by the University of Melbourne, surveyed over 1000 survivors of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that claimed 173 lives, including 35 children, making it the worst recorded bushfire disaster in Australian history.
The study identified that;
Being close to more people and involvement in community groups was one of the strongest predictors of better mental health outcomes. However, the researchers found that there is a point when people can be members of too many community groups, and it starts hurt their mental health. This ranged from being a member of anywhere between three to eight groups, depending on an individual’s circumstances. Also, the study warned that much of the burden for sustaining such groups can fall on just a few individuals, and they can suffer from doing too much.
So, of course, as with most things in life, it’s helpful to understand ‘social resiliencing’ and hence community wellbeing, paradoxically. What do I mean?
As the study found, being in community and connecting with others was a strong predictor of better mental health outcomes (i.e. ‘resiliencing’), particularly after facing adversity such as bushfires. While this may make sense intuitively for those who subscribe to the view that we are social beings and of the importance of connecting in community with our mental health (see also – https://safetyrisk.net/our-social-being-and-why-it-matters-in-mental-health-and-suicide/), as the researchers identified, for some people, particularly those who are involved in a significant number of groups, or those who bear the burden of group organising, connecting in community with others may ironically create greater stress, rather than relief of the same.
There is no doubt some very challenging times are ahead for many people and many communities who have been thrown together following these most traumatic events.
In response, we have seen a terrific outpouring of support, kindness and concern from many people across the country. It’s something that we have become accustomed to following such disasters, with some describing this response as part of the ‘Aussie culture’. While I don’t argue with this, I would also suggest that it is a most appealing part of human nature experienced worldwide. That is, we often come together in support of each other when we are challenged with hardship; it’s a very human thing to do.
In response also though, I would suggest that we are not far from entering a period where much ‘social resiliencing’ will begin and continue for some time. As people, we often pull together in unplanned community with others, continuing our living, being and surviving. Of course too, along with this there will be suffering, ‘paining’ and learning.
It’s such an integral (and paradoxical) part of our human ‘being’ that we face both adversity and then learn and grown from this. It’s what ‘social resiliencing’ is all about. Isn’t it?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on; what is ‘community’ and, your thoughts on ‘social resiliencing’?
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About the Author:
Robert Sams is a current student at Griffith University and the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) currently completing the post-graduate Masters of Suicidology program. Rob is also has post-graduate qualifications in the Social Psychology of Risk (ACU) and an undergraduate degree in Health and Safety (University of Newcastle).
Rob has been involved with Lifeline, an Australian organisation focused on suicide prevention and crisis support services, since 2012. Initially this was as a volunteer and from 2017 in paid leadership roles. Rob authored his first book, Social Sensemaking in 2016 and has a particular interest in a community-led approach to suicide prevention and he proudly lives on the land of the Awabakal people in Newcastle, NSW.