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Being a village

tess-2-copyTess Casey
CEO
Neighbourhood Support NZ

The big news of the year so far has been the announcement that our Prime Minister and her partner are expecting their first baby.   Admittedly the year has only just started and we’ve all been on holiday so there hasn’t been that much news – but judging by the scale of the reaction I think most people would agree that it’s Big News.

It’s been heartening to see that much of the reaction has been supportive and positive.   Some of it has been misogynistic and sent me to check the date on my calendar.  It is indeed 2018, and balancing work and parenthood has been a reality for many of us for some time.  It’s great to see that our political institution is finally going to catch up.  I’m hoping that in ten years’ time the people who are challenged by this news will look back at it and think, “Remember when Jacinda had her baby and we thought it was going to be impossible for a woman to have a baby and be PM?” in the same way that people may have looked back on 1893 and said “Remember when we thought that the economy would collapse if women got the vote?”

We all know that holding down a job (no matter how significant it is) and being a parent is hard work.  Every family needs the support of their whanau, their friends and their employers.  The PM used the phrase ‘it’s going to take a village’.

I hope our village is up to it, because there is an increasing body of evidence that shows that our modern lifestyles are not conducive to behaving like a village.  This was highlighted by another bit of news from last week: the announcement that the UK is going to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.

Social isolation has now been recognised as one of the biggest public health risks of our times.  A study on the top predictive factors for whether or not you will live a long life shows that the most important factor is having social interactions in your daily life, followed by having close relationships.  To the surprise of many, these turn out to be more significant than whether or not you exercise regularly and whether or not you smoke.

It is more than a little alarming, then, that a range of studies have found that the number of people experiencing loneliness and social isolation are high.  (The data from the UK’s Loneliness Commission found that there were 9 million people in the UK reporting problems with loneliness, including 58% of refugees and migrants, 50% of people with disabilities, 43% of young people and 24% of parents.)

Loneliness shouldn’t happen if we are thinking and behaving like a village.  Villages share certain characteristics and top amongst them are a strong sense of community consciousness, with neighbours knowing and helping one another.   Villages are designed to enable social interaction.  Communal spaces are often at the heart of a village and village life.

This is important because the evidence also shows that it’s face-to-face contact that provides the biggest health benefit.  The chemicals in our body that lower stress, reduce pain and make us happy are released when we make eye contact with somebody.  So a smile, a handshake or a wave is actually a public health benefit.

There are big campaigns around other factors that are a risk to our public health – things like smoking and obesity.  Our government is going to be undertaking an inquiry into mental health and addiction services and has said that nothing is off the table.  The inquiry absolutely needs to focus on ensuring that we have well-resourced services, but it also needs to focus on ways we can encourage social interaction in our neighbourhoods and workplaces so that we reduce the risk of loneliness and isolation.

As community organisations we also have a huge role to play.  Some of us provide services but we also provide opportunities for people to connect through volunteering and to be involved in sport and recreation activities.  We are often the first people to notice if someone seems down, or unwell, or if they are going through a rough patch.  Perhaps there is more we can do to provide hospitality and facilitate opportunities for people to connect with one another.

And perhaps we should also consider having our own Minister for Loneliness so that we are taking a holistic and intentional approach to building and sustaining our ‘villages’.

In the meantime don’t forget that Neighbours Day is coming up on 24-25 March!

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/