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Hearts & Minds: Sharing as a Mental Health Intervention

Sharing and collaboration opens up incredible opportunities for strengthening individual and community resilience. Those participating in or monitoring sharing activity know this, usually anecdotally. But what if we could measure the benefits to people and societies?

One of the biggest challenges for many societies in the 21st century is mental health. In addition to the incalculable human cost of pain, distress and heartbreak, it has also become a huge economic cost.

A 2013 report on mental health expenditure in Australia reveals that over $28 billion is spent each year supporting people with a mental illness, including the activities that lie outside hospital services and community and public health services. The largest component is support for drug and alcohol abuse.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians aged 16-85 years had a mental disorder in 2007 and almost one in two (or 7.3 million people) had experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives.

Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that mental illnesses are the leading causes of disability worldwide, with depression alone accounting for one third of this. The estimated global cost of mental illness was nearly $2.5 trillion (two-thirds in indirect costs) in 2010, with a projected increase to over $6 trillion by 2030.

The entire global health spend in 2009 was $5.1 trillion.

The World Economic Forum report ‘The Global Economic Burden of Non-communicable Diseases’ revealed that mental health issues are the single largest source of health care costs, more than cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer, or diabetes.

At the same time that demand for services is increasing, austerity measures are exerting downward pressure on budgets. Communities everywhere will need creative ways to address mental health, and the associated spiralling costs.

We know that higher levels of inequality are a cause of poor mental and physical health.

We know that social isolation is a cause of poor mental and physical health.

We know that our ability to live life well depends on what support systems are around if our life conditions are not ideal (eg. relationship breakdown, job loss, bereavement), and the resilience of both individuals and communities.

Sharing is a proactive approach to supporting people experiencing tough times, and helping reduce social isolation without associated stigma, while simultaneously helping people meet each others’ needs. Through sharing, no one need be a recipient of charity, but all can be recognised and valued as a contributing participant in their community.

Mental health is a public health issue, yet the approach has typically been to work on the symptoms – responding to urgent situations of those at risk of harming themselves or others, helping people feel ‘less bad’, or ‘fixing’ the damage once it is done.

A preventative, systems-based approach of strengthening wellbeing would cause less trauma for individuals, their loved ones and communities, and could reduce demand for such support services.

I am not advocating defunding of mental health care. I am advocating sharing as a way to complement it, with a view to lessening the need for such services over time through building resilience.

Not all of what falls under the umbrella of ‘mental health’ can be address through sharing and building more resilient communities.

But some of it can.

In my home city of Adelaide, there is a newly established Wellbeing and Resilience Centre within the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). This international centre was launched in May 2014, following the residency of Professor Martin Seligman, who was a ‘Thinker in Residence’ in Adelaide in 2012-13 at the invitation of the South Australian government. Partners for this residency included a range of State and local government bodies, NGOs and tertiary institutions.

Seligman’s focus is positive psychology and his model of how wellbeing and resilience can be measured and taught through PERMA (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment).

‘Sharing’, in its true sense, aligns with PERMA:

Positive Emotion – because it starts from an ‘assets based’ approach (revealing and naming positive actions), sharing offers a different societal narrative from those which are so often the focus of politics and the media. Rather than articulating all that is ‘wrong’, which results in a focus on ‘problems’, and ‘solutions’ to ‘fix’ them, sharing begins by asking what are people doing that is already working, how can we invite more people into this space, and how can we replicate/support this activity? This aligns with the PERMA ethos of shifting the focus from ‘what is wrong?’ to ‘what is right?’ One technique for this is beginning any community initiative by asset-mapping.

Engagement – in unearthing and enabling discovery of existing sharing networks and activities, people can find and are able to connect into those networks. By identifying not just what is, but also people’s intent and interest in starting something, helping people find and connect and coalesce energy around ideas. Mapping, connecting and amplifying sharing initiatives helps people to see that they are part of something more than their local food swap or tool library – they are part of a citywide, nationwide and global movement

Relationships – by definition, sharing means connecting with others. For those whose close ties have been lost or are fractured for any reason (retirement, loss of partner, moving home, becoming a parent), becoming part of a community that does things together opens up a range of new possible relationships.  In addition to helping people find and connect with sharing initiatives, relationships can also be built between initiatives.

Meaning – whether it involves repairing items destined for landfill, working shoulder to shoulder to build things that are donated to those in need, or growing produce to swap and share, these activities are things that people feel a sense of meaning and purpose in doing – which is why they are doing them, often in addition to/around paid work and family responsibilities. Almost without exception, sharing activity is about doing something for others in the community as well as for self-satisfaction. People are more likely to want to participate in an activity or program if they feel they are an effective contributor, rather than a recipient of assistance.

Accomplishment – sharing invites everyone to bring what they have to offer in terms of skills, passion and knowledge into a collaborative environment. No one is worthless or excluded. Open badges could be developed to identify who the community experts are in a given field for those in search of their know-how (eg. how to establish a verge garden), and attribute value and status to people who have developed knowledge and expertise that is not acknowledged by formal educational institutions. Like scouting badges, Open Badges communicate a skill or achievement but are displayed on the Internet. They contain comprehensive data including: who has earned the badge, its criteria, learning evidence and who has endorsed it. All this information is packaged within a tiny badge image file that can be displayed via online CVs and social networking sites.

The work of the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre is showing a way that wellbeing and resilience, via PERMA, can be measured and taught.

How can we develop a similar method to measure the impact of sharing on mental health, and how might we be able to quantify this, including in monetary terms? 

How can a community of interest, drawn from any place in the world, collaborate to:

  • design an effective framework for measuring the health costs offset by sharing initiatives, and show how sharing delivers positive benefits for mental health at the preventative stage?
  • determine how sharing projects that deliver mental health benefits could capture some of the value that is saved from a reduction in mental health costs to create an ongoing funding stream for preventative approaches ie. tying demonstrated reduction in expenditure to a percentage of the savings into replicating sharing activities
  • develop a meaningful suite of Open Badges to acknowledge what people give to their communities, and their associated skills and experience, which is unrecognised outside ‘formal’ educational qualifications

What could be achieved if like-minded people began an international collaborative project focused on how sharing benefits mental health, not just in terms of case studies, but in quantifiable economic terms?

Ultimately, what social, health, environmental and economic benefits would be realise if we designed our cities for sharing?

Adelaide, are you up for the challenge?

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