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Wellbeing for all and all for wellbeing

Date: August 24, 2021
Author: Nic Powell, CRRMH Research Assistant

Wellbeing is one of the buzz words of the moment. Council wellbeing plans and government wellbeing budgets are becoming popular. The University college I work in recently added the word wellbeing to its title. The NSW government committed several million dollars to developing community wellbeing collaboratives.

Wellbeing can be a frustratingly vague word used differently by Influencers, journalists, health professionals, politicians and researchers. And often in off-putting and unhelpful ways. It seems to generally refer to living one’s best life or living life to its fullest potential – not just eliminating the negatives but accentuating the positives.

This is epitomised by the concept of salutogenesis. Coined by sociologist Aaron Antonovsky over 40 years ago, salutogenesis refers to a model of health which focuses on the factors that promote physical and mental wellbeing rather than those that cause disease. It goes beyond disease prevention (minimising health risk factors) and health promotion (maximising healthy behaviours) to focus on the resources that move people toward overall wellbeing, even during stressful times.

This priority on increasing quality of life obviously isn’t a new idea. But it gives rise to some interesting questions for us all.

  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you healthy?
  • What adds meaning to your life?
  • What makes a good place to live?

These aren’t especially easy questions to answer as individuals. It is harder still for us to live by the answers. It becomes even more challenging to combine everyone’s vision for wellbeing in a community (group, street, club, neighbourhood, town, state, national). This is why we at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH) have been researching how communities can work together to improve wellbeing on a population scale.

This has several advantages.

  1. It deindividualises wellbeing. Having low wellbeing (by anyone’s definition) is not an individual failing. We know wellbeing is a product of where we live and the social circumstances around us. For more about this idea, see information on the social determinants of health.
  2. It encourages upstream approaches. Preventative health is one of the more effective strategies for improving health but is often underinvested. Health promotion goes further still and aims to spread health promoting behaviours.
  3. It creates a positive feedback loop of wellbeing. We know it is easier to be well in health-promoting environments and people who are well are more likely to create health-promoting environments. For example, volunteering is linked with high mental health and life satisfaction.

There are quite a number of small initiatives that aim to improve wellbeing across Australia. Often these are developed by communities or small organisations in isolation from each other. And there is rarely enough money to fully evaluate them, so we don’t always hear about the lessons they have learned. Sometimes they are so familiar to us that we take their benefits and operation for granted. Think, for example, about our great institutions powered by volunteers (Rural Fire Services, Surf Lifesaving, Landcare, Rotary, Lions, Country Women’s Associations etc), where the volunteers and the communities they serve benefit greatly.

Swinburne University hosted an online forum at the end of 2020 that brought people together from rural NSW, Victoria and Tasmania to share experiences from their own community mental health and wellbeing initiatives. They recently released a report to outline their findings from the discussions.

The report highlights 15 practices that help build successful coproduced community mental health initiatives. These practices move through beginning an initiative, codesign and coproduction with the community, reaching the broader community, and long term planning. But these aren’t necessarily designed to be followed in order and checked off. They are ongoing ways of working in and with a community. These lessons are summarised in the figure below.

Read the short and easy-to-read report in full here.

 

 

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