Community, narrative and context

Cyntia Ueda

We, humans, are social beings. Our survival and the construction of culture – with all its richness of symbols, signs and meanings – wouldn’t happen without our gathering. One evidence, for example, is that our brains are designed to seek for loving social-attachment bonds, that through brain chemicals, called opioids, make us feel good and take away feelings of pain (Panksepp & Biven, 2012).

Through the experiences in a social network, we develop a concept about who we are (Mehl-Madrona, 2010) by internalising stories that we and others tell us about ourselves. Aspects of these stories might have something in common with aspects of other people’s stories, such as interests, needs, region, role, gender, among others, which in turn might create identification. People who identify themselves as a group with certain communalities form a community.

When an individual feels discriminated against or rejected in society for being a member of a certain group, he or she might wish not to belong and will disconnect from this group due to the negative affect and experiences associated with this membership, in a process called disidentification (Becker & Tausch, 2014). Or, on the other hand, the individual might identify more with their ingroup, using his/her membership to “foster ingroup ties and affect, which in turn protect individuals from the harmful effects of discrimination” (Ramos et al., 2012, p. 655), a coping resource that provides psychological shelter, restoring positive self-esteem by the feeling of inclusion. This is called Rejection-identification model (RIM; Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey, 1999). I would also add that when we face a shock of culture, we try to find plenitude and coherence in people who share similar stories, and this would explain, in any country, the gathering of immigrants in communities – the little Poland, the little Sicily in Brazil, for example. It is an element of mental health protection (Bastide, 1972/2016), because “the differences in taken-for-granted assumptions can make us feel very uneasy and unsure of ourselves” (Thompson, 2018, p. 25).

When the group falls apart and there is a breakdown of social ties, there is a loss of the feeling of identity (Bastide, 1972/2016). No wonder people descended from colonised communities have a big concern regarding identity and belonging, and fight for the rescue of values, culture and bonds, that were so damaged due the violence of the separation and scattering of their members. Far beyond, they also need to deal with manipulative discourses that frequently delegitimise their efforts, suffering and history.

A very important point to be highlighted is that there is a domination system that defines standards of behavior, rules, habits, symbols, etc. but in such a subtle and insidious way that most of the time we do not realize that we are playing their game (the dominant class game) (Hodgson & Watts, 2017). The way in which the Australian government deals with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ wellbeing is an example – there is a lack of decision-making power in the hands of these minority groups about issues that are their concern, as well as a lack of understanding of their values regarding wellbeing (Butler et al., 2019), and yet, some people might think that the government policies are coherent. However, in fact, is the government helping or just keeping the practice of impositions?

Guerin & Guerin (2012) go right on the spot by disclosing how Indigenous Australians’ mental health has been addressed without putting everything in context, which generated concepts of indigeneity (the individual has an illness for the only reason he/she is Indigenous, and historical, social, bureaucratic contexts are ignored). In their proposal of how the treatment should work:

… the locus of treatment will shift from talking to people or providing medications, to working alongside them in families and communities, and to identify the wider contexts for thoughts and behaviours in order to change them. In stark form, it is not that interventions should try to alleviate poverty or racism in order to make the personal or individual ‘mental illness’ easier to deal with in a western method; rather, the context of living in poverty or racism is the ‘mental illness’ that needs curing. (Guerin & Guerin, 2012, p. 566).

This leads to another important concept that neuroscience raised in the last years: epigenetics. Through life experiences, environment, and even emotional reactions, the structure of our genetic molecules can be changed, and also the way that genetic information is replicated and expressed. This occurs through processes called methylation and acetylation, and these modifications can be transmitted from generation to generation (Mehl-Madrona, 2010). I believe this is an explanation not only for generational trauma, but it also tackles why certain groups seem more susceptible to some illness, by considering their context.

Finally, seeking shelter in the community to protect yourself mentally is important, but in addition, understanding the causes and mechanisms of oppression that afflict members of that community gives new meaning to the community – “a critical consciousness of the social structures that are implicated in their oppression, including the impact of cultural hegemony” (Payne, 2014, p. 332) is an awareness that allows nonconformity. Hodgson & Watts (2017) suggest that a practice of resistance is to contest normalising power and explore new ways of being, thinking, interacting – for instance, reject labels, redefine and appropriate concepts, challenge the norms that define us. We can build and adopt new narratives, as an individual and as a community, that recognise and honours our capacities (Healy, 2014).


Bastide, R.(2016). O sonho, o transe e a loucura (de Moura, C. E. M., Trans.). Três Estrelas. (Original work published 1972).

Becker, J. C., & Tausch, N. (2014). When group memberships are negative: The concept, measurement, and behavioral implications of psychological disidentification. Self and Identity, 13(3), 294-321.

Branscombe, N. R., Schmitt, M. T., & Harvey, R. D. (1999). Perceiving pervasive discrimination among African-Americans: Implications for group identification and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 135–149. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.1.135

Butler, T. L., Anderson, K., Garvey, G., Cunningham, J., Ratcliffe, J., Tong, A., … & Howard, K. (2019). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s domains of wellbeing: A comprehensive literature review. Social science & medicine, 233, 138-157.

Guerin, B., & Guerin, P. (2012). Re-thinking mental health for Indigenous Australian communities: Communities as context for mental health. Community Development Journal, 47(4), 555-570.

Healy, K. (2014). Social work theories in context: Creating frameworks for practice. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Hodgson, D., & Watts, L. (2017). Key concepts and theory in social work. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Mehl-Madrona, L. (2010). Healing the mind through the power of story: The promise of narrative psychiatry. Simon and Schuster.

Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.

Payne, M. (2014). Modern social work theory. Oxford University Press.

Ramos, M. R., Cassidy, C., Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of the rejection–identification hypothesis. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51(4), 642-660.

Thompson, N. (2018). Effective communication: A guide for the people professions. Macmillan International Higher Education.

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