How do our family, friends and community influence our health?

30 April 2018

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Last Saturday, I was standing at the Europa bus station in Belfast trying to work out the bus timetable when I was distracted by the sense that something wasn’t quite right.

Looking up, a boy of 7 or 8 years old was immobilised, his face in a silent scream. Before I had processed what was happening, another woman moved towards him, gently put her arm on his shoulder and asked what was the matter. ‘I’ve lost my gran,’ he cried. The silence turned into a wail. By now, several of us were looking around the busy bus station to see if we could identify someone as his gran, a network of concern rippling through the crowd. Within a few moments, there was a call from across the hall. The boy saw his gran and darted towards her, crying until he reached her side.

It was a timely incident, as I had been wondering that morning how to introduce our new infographic about how families, friends and communities influence health. It’s challenging, discussing something that is invisible – the desire to belong – but is at the core of our needs as human beings. A sense of belonging can be nurtured in many ways, whether by family through our early experiences, by friendships with people who share our interests, concerns and values as we grow older, or simply by feeling part of a place – walking into a local shop or cafe where someone says hello.

Drawing on a recent report from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, this month’s infographic illustrates the connections between people’s health outcomes, their immediate circle of relationships, community participation and empowerment.

Infographic illustrating how our family, friends and communities build the foundations for good health

Going beyond the simple premise that human interactions are good for us and necessary to our wellbeing, this infographic shows how these relationships provide the foundations necessary for a healthy life:

  • Feeling supported by others – and how this makes us feel about ourselves, our sense of agency and what we believe is possible – is evidently essential for our wellbeing. And it isn’t simply about having people who care for us. Just as important for our self-esteem is our own opportunity to care for and support others.
     
  • Beyond our immediate relationships, our connections within and across the communities we are part of – where we live, where we learn, where we work – are all critical to feeling included and valued. Studies have shown that feelings of belonging and trust in others were the strongest predictor of mental wellbeing after controlling for physical health problems.
     
  • Acting on these feelings of inclusion – coming together with others in our communities to volunteer or participate in collective activities – enhances our sense of purpose and shared identity. It also improves our coping ability during times of stress. 
     
  • Finally, from community participation comes community empowerment. A flourishing society requires people to feel a sense of control and collective voice that can enable them to influence positive change. Community empowerment is increasingly being shown to be a route to addressing health inequalities.

The boy at the bus station was a powerful reminder of what happens when we are cut adrift from the relationships which keep us safe. Our latest infographic shows how these familial ties are just the beginning of a set of complex interactions that are critical to our health and wellbeing.

Jo Bibby (@JoBibbyTHF) is Director of Healthy Lives Strategy at the Health Foundation.

References

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