Embracing the benefits of community can have a profound impact on mental health
After more than two years of navigating a new world where safety, belonging, and community were no longer guaranteed, people are ready to heal. Experts believe that self-isolation and quarantine in particular contributed to increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression during COVID-19. One reason for this was a lack of social connection, which according to the World Happiness Report, is crucial for well-being. The pandemic undeniably had a major negative impact on mental health. Fortunately, the solution could be as simple as helping others. Science backs up this claim in a number of ways, including studies that show helpers are less stressed, people with a purpose have a reduced mortality rate, and volunteers experience a “helper’s high” that is associated with longevity and positive emotions.
Lisa Edge has learned firsthand about the powerful impacts of being of service through her work with Pallet Shelter, a social impact company focused on “ending unsheltered homelessness.” With more than 60 villages across 11 states, Pallet Shelter has manufactured 1,864 sleeping cabins.
These transitional housing units provide private sleeping cabins with lockable doors and make people feel at home. Village residents benefit from shared private bathrooms, laundry facilities, three meals per day, and a mixed-use space that encourages relationship-building and social support from people who can help them navigate the complex process of securing permanent housing.
Pallet Shelter sometimes partners with organizations like Construction for Change, Habitat for Humanity, and HomeAid to help with the construction. With a dedicated team, Edge says, the shelters can be erected in 30 minutes or less. The process is fairly seamless, which means the biggest challenge often centers on getting the surrounding communities on board.
“We have had situations where the neighbors don’t want a village to open,” Edge says. “People often think that the shelters will attract more homeless people or that there’s going to be a lot of trash everywhere. When you work in homelessness, there's a lot of dispelling myths and stereotypes that has to be done.”
To combat these negative expectations, Edge says many cities and municipalities have worked to foster conversation with the surrounding communities and bring neighbors into the villages. This often has a transformative effect.
“Once the shelters are in place and the neighbors see that the village hasn’t impacted their community in any significant way, the neighbors end up wanting to help and volunteer,” Edge says. “They see the village is helping people, and they want to take part in that. This exposure helps people understand—it doesn’t benefit anyone to believe the worst about homeless people. These people are our neighbors, and they need help.”
Part of the company’s mission is to give people a second chance at employment. This often means hiring people who have experienced homelessness in the past the opportunity to help those who still are. “Working at Pallet is a way to give back,” Edge says. “Many have personally experienced being unhoused, so they understand residents' challenges. The folks who are building these shelters or are on deployment teams are really passionate about what they’re doing because they get to see how it helps real people and changes their lives.”
In one instance, Edge talked to a male employee who told her about his experience fixing one of the shelters for a woman resident. She told him how important having a locking door was because she’d previously endured violence when she was living on the street. The conversation put his efforts into perspective—something the pandemic gave nearly everyone a dose of.
“During the pandemic a lot of people struggled, and that highlighted that, yes, we want to be in community,” Edge says. “It also showed us that anyone could be homeless. For a lot of people life became precarious in a way that it wasn’t before. The pandemic has forced us to do things differently.”
On February 13, 2022, football fans everywhere gathered around their television sets to watch the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals battle for the title of Super Bowl LVI champions. The annual sporting event is known for bringing people together to bond over pizza, highly anticipated commercials, and a shared love of the game. For those in Pallet Shelter Villages, there’s one small difference: The fans attending the watch parties are part of a community of people experiencing homelessness.
Celebratory gatherings are one small example of how Pallet Shelter encourages unity and belonging at its villages. “Community is big with us because when you have support, you know someone is there to help when you need it,” says Edge. “When you're homeless, people don’t look at you. People ignore you. People don’t see you. But when you come into a space like one of our villages, you are a person. You are acknowledged and welcomed. People want you there.”
Unity in Community During COVID
From the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when disaster strikes, people band together to provide mutual aid and support to those who need it. This phenomenon is well-documented, but the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to learn more about the mental health benefits of helping others.
According to survey data collected in the UK during June 2020, “coordinated community helping predicted the psychological bonding of community members by building a sense of community identification and unity during the pandemic, which predicted increased well‐being and reduced depression and anxiety.” Not only did community members feel solidarity within their groups, but they were also more likely to spontaneously help others.
The Power of Forgiveness
If you’ve been fuming over a past wrong, it might be time to finally let it go. Your mental and physical health might depend on it.
According to Dr. Everett Worthington, a psychologist and emeritus professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, rumination—an “unwanted form of obsessive thinking” that often results from the “unhealed emotional wound of an old transgression or injustice”—is the “universal bad boy of mental health.”
“Rumination is related to anger disorders, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders,” he says.
Worthington has also seen how rumination can lead to physical health issues. Because holding a grudge is often stressful, the body responds, “similar to the physical effects of stress.” This impacts the immune system’s levels of cortisol, adrenaline production, and cytokine balance. The cure? Forgiveness.
“When we forgive,” Worthington says, “it quiets a lot of that rumination down, so there are more benefits in terms of psychological wellbeing and happiness.”
The perks of forgiveness aren’t limited to personal health. It can promote a greater sense of unity, too.
“The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness,” Yale psychologist Molly Crockett said about the study. “We think our findings reveal a basic predisposition toward giving others, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. The human mind is built for maintaining social relationships.”