What is one of the most effective ways to alleviate suffering? It’s to be Part of a Tribe

As a society, we have been through an astonishingly odd and difficult time over recent years. In terms of the impact on our mental health and wellbeing, it probably just falls short of total war. People already living on a knife’s edge were thrust into the dark, into isolation, into fear and loneliness. This loneliness kills through deterioration in mental health that leads to severe neglect and people taking their lives. Loneliness stresses the body long term leading to severe physical problems and strain on an already strained body. Loneliness is comparable to smoking 15 cigarette a day for your health. Also, guess what, the more lonely you are the more likely you are to smoke! For some, lockdown increased loneliness and isolation. It also institutionalised people into being cut off and isolated. My heart breaks every time I speak to someone who is isolated and cut off. It breaks my heart that in communities full of people, many are lonely. As hard as it might be for some, there is a glaring solution to alleviate the mental health burden and it’s not just for those who are suffering and are lonely, It’s for us all. Still don’t believe that loneliness is a severe problem? Then check out this report by the MH foundation (2002). So what is the solution? Be part of a tribe.

Sometimes I try to help people as a mental health professional and all my training and knowledge is sometimes for nothing and doesn’t really make a difference. But often these people improve, often dramatically. Let me explain. There have been quite a few times this has happened in my career across a range of jobs, a range of clients, demographics and mental health problems. It goes something like this; I spend a lot of time going through health promotion with clients, trying to build a therapeutic relationship, using a range of tools, tricks and skills and I might see a slight improvement in them, but it’s often only temporary and their underlying difficulties continue. Then suddenly, I see them again or sometime at a later date and bam! They are feeling better and just seem a better version of themselves. It’s always amazing to see this. I’ll ask about their life and what has contributed to making them feel better. The answer is that they have found a tribe. I don’t mean a cult or a band of hunter gatherers or a politicized affiliation with left of right, I mean being around and connected to people in some way. A connection where there is a shared interest. This connection to others must also add to and enhance a sense of belonging and identity. For some this could be colleagues at their work, a martial arts club, Crossfit gym, uni mates, a walking group or some sort of hobby enthusiast group and more. If this tribe is something that gets you meeting people face to face, gets you moving, gets you out,  gets you hands on and/or gets you having fun, all the better.

If you pop into google the importance of finding a tribe or being part or a community or some support network and so on (even if you ask a chatGPT, believe me I tried and it was a very average reponse). It’ll undoubtedly say the benefits are; being around others with a shared interest, fun and exciting, finding purpose, yada yada. All these are undoubtedly true and you don’t need me to list them and explain why these are important. But I think there is something fundamentally missing in all the quotes, blogs and advice. Something that is much more important and fundamental. Being part of a tribe makes you better. I’m not saying you’re not good enough in the first place. What I am saying is that you are a better version of yourself in a tribe. A tribe gives you a place to simply learn to be a better and more functional person. When you are part of a tribe, you are accountable for your actions. A tribe provides an environment where you can test yourself out through trial and error. Let’s learn a little more about what I mean.

So why does being part of a tribe help?

You are accountable for your actions. We are meant to be part of a community. A tribe circa 50,000 years ago would have meant a small community of multiple families with a shared goal to survive, hunt and gather. There would have been the young and bold, the old and wise, future sexual partners and intricate divisions of labour to ensure the tribe thrived. Being ostracised from a tribe in our ancestral history may have meant death, loneliness and isolation. If you acted like a complete jerk, you faced the equivalent of a twitter public shaming, except this would have been your whole interpersonal world. Not just faceless people or bots hiding behind an anime profile pic. You risked lowering your status in the hierarchy and at its worst, you risked being cast out. I’m not saying you become a complete conformist, but being responsible for how you conduct yourself around other people is really important for the social creatures we are. A modern tribe helps you establish boundaries of what is acceptable where you have a responsibility for your actions, this means being kind to others, showing interest, talking to people and helping others out too. 

You learn to help others – If you have been without meaningful social connections, sometimes you lose a bit of your mojo, that little bit of chat and banter. Your self esteem and confidence could also take a dive. For some with low self esteem, beliefs that they are useless, unlikable or worthless may rise to the surface when you have been deprived of these connections. Lets just say you’ve joined a new group, you’ll encounter people who may need help; a lift, a piece of equipment, people who want a coffee or a chat. You may now have these opportunities to help others. Opportunities that maybe you haven’t had for a long time. You know what? Helping others just feels really good. You might think this is a bit of a selfish act. It isn’t, helping others is meant to feel good. Our ancestors invested in each other and helped each other so when shit hits the fan you’d have each other’s backs. You’ll find that those low self esteem thoughts; ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m useless’ just don’t sting as much.

Others will help you – I often find the biggest factor in someone’s life in keeping them well and safe is their support network.That’s why mental health professionals will always ask who’ve you’ve got in your life, what support you have. People who can help you get to the shop, help you get to the GP and have someone to talk to if needed. That’s all pretty obvious right. But, those who are lonely will seldom take opportunities to be helped by others, particularly men. Men, generally speaking, desire to solve their own problems and getting help from others will not be an option. Being part of a tribe creates a support network where you learn that often (not all the time), people are nice. It’s simple, most people are nice. If you are someone who’s been let down a few too many times there’s a good chance you have developed a mental filter over the years. This filter removes the good stuff and reinforces the bad. You’ll see the badness, you will assume others are letting you down and you may even tell yourself; ‘others are unhelpful’ or ‘uncaring’. It may take a bit of time, but being part of a tribe can help you see that actually, others are alright. You know what, just like you’ll help someone when they are in need, someone will help you when you are in need.

You become a better version of yourself – Let me share a little anecdote I will always remember which might be a little extreme but it works. Long time ago, I used to be a mental health support worker and had a client I used to see and take to places in the community. Let’s call him Dave. He had some severe mental health difficulties and was pretty depressed and lonely. Dave managed to get onto a bicycle maintenance course that led to a voluntary position in a bike store where there were other volunteers. This might seem small to you or I, but it was massive. Dave was connected to others and was part of a team, had shared a common interest, had fun and was learning a skill he loved. Part of his identity was someone who works with and is good with bikes. There was an exponential increase in his mental health and sense of wellbeing. Problems were still there, but just not as bad. All the social support and psychiatric input didn’t really make that much of a difference other than preventing a relapse or being there if things go wrong. But a volunteer job in a bike shop did. He found a tribe. Did Dave go around saying all the cliche stuff; ‘I have a purpose…I share a common interest with others…I have a support network’. No he didn’t, he was just different, a bit more positive and was a better functioning person. He was in a better routine and enjoyed parts of his day. Dave had to be on time, he had to speak with others, he had to do a job and was open to being corrected and was learning a new skill. He had people around him who had a shared interest. Dave was accountable for his actions, he learned to help others, he learned to take help off others and he became a better person. When I say he became a better person, obviously he is the same person as he was before, but before he was riddled with low self esteem and depressive symptoms. Once upon a time, Dave wasn’t functioning great, a few months later, Dave was functioning pretty damn well. He was a better version of himself, all thanks to being part of a tribe.

Little foot note. As part of my job and role, I often think and reflect on my life. There were a few distinct moments in my life where I was struggling with my mental health. For me (this will obviously not be true for everyone), these difficult moments had a direct link with the loss or a rupture in a tribe and my tribal identity. There were a few key moments when things were very tough. When my band split up (long live Zenyth), the loss of my brother who seemed to hold the family tribe together, when I left a job working in a coffee shop and missed out on all those lovely colleagues I grew to love and leaving the military. These points in my life hurt and part of me felt lost and in grief over the loss in identity as well the difficult in the life transitions. Think back on your own life, was the loss of a tribe a contributing factor? I bet it was. There are tribes out there for you.

Still can’t do it? Still can’t find a tribe? What I think should be the most important thing on the tip of the tongues of all the health professionals out there is ‘social prescribing’. This is the idea of linking people to community based activities, not simply giving you a pill. It works. Read more here. Visit your local Mind, chat with a mental health worker at your surgery or chat with a GP. This is the one time I’d probably recommend getting on some social media and looking for local groups. There’s so much out there.

About the author

Paul Regan

I have been working as a mental health nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. I love my job, I love learning and talking to people about mental health and wellbeing. This article represents my personal opinion and is certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health please speak with a GP or health professional. 

The CALL helpline0800 132 737 or  text HELP to 81066. Sometimes reaching out for support whether it is a friend,  family member or GP is the hardest thing to do, but a good way to do this is by talking to someone through a confidential and impartial service.  CALL Offers emotional support, a confidential listening service and information/literature on Mental Health and related matters to the people of Wales and their relatives/friends.

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