Community Development: An Untapped Resource in Mental Health Treatment

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

What is community development, anyway? It sounds so general. And doesn’t it have to do with money – kind of like the department of housing and urban development? What does community development have to do with mental health?

To understand community development, think about the public or non-profit places in your own neighborhood that help others. It may be a food bank, job skills training center, or homeless shelter. It may be a new playground that provides a safe space for kids, or it may be the mobile library that provides reading materials to the homebound.


Each of these programs resulted from the process of community development – a very broad term that speaks to the practices of civic leaders, scholars, activists, professionals, and involved citizens to improve their communities.

According to the Community Development Exchange, which aims to educate community leaders, funders, and policymakers about community development principles, community development aims to build communities that are centered on justice, mutual respect, and equality.

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Here are a couple of key values that should drive community development:

  • A community holds a wealth of knowledge and experience and should take the time to mine that wisdom from all parts of the community.
  • The members of a community are not all the same, but they are all of equal worth and deserve structures, programs, and opportunities that allow everyone to thrive.
  • The best way to address community problems is to harness the strengths of the community and use them to create positive environments.
  • Community development is a collective, continuous process.

As I read about community development, it struck me that this is a wonderful model for addressing the mental health issues of a community. Fortunately, a recent issue of Community Development Journal addressed this very topic. Two articles in particular caught my interest.

The first one, written by Seebohm, Gilchrist, and Morris, explores how community development can contribute to mental well-being and inclusion. Their study of various community development projects in the UK revealed that community development projects helped break down barriers to mental health treatment, built relationships between agencies and service populations, and confronted discrimination. People experiencing mental health challenges were better connected with activities and services that helped them address their mental health issues and empowered them to be more involved in their own treatment.

The second article, written by McCabe and Davis, describes the growing international interest in community development as a way to promote mental health. However, they note that the link between community development and mental health is still weak in practice, and that the two disciplines often operate in parallel worlds. They suggest three ways to foster collaboration between these two fields:

  • Focus on individual and collective strengths instead of mental health pathology;
  • Address structural inequalities as well as individual mental health challenges; and
  • Shift the policy environment to one that embraces long-term goals and results instead of one that makes decisions based on brief interventions and short-term outcomes.

In other words, tapping into community development in order to improve mental health treatment is going to take time. But based on what I’ve read, it’s going to be worth it.


McCabe, A., & Davis, A. (2012). Community development as mental health promotion: Principles, practice, and outcomes. Community Development Journal, 47(4), 506-521.

Seebohm, P., Gilchrist, A., & Morris, D. (2012). Bold but balanced: How community development contributes to mental health and inclusion. Community Development Journal, 47(4), 473-490.

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