4 Pillars of How Cooperatives Improve Mental Health

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Living in community can drastically heal people’s personal wounds. Cooperative residents with social anxiety, self-consciousness, trust-issues, and other social ills notice great personal healing after living in community. They don’t expect this to happen, but it seems to be a common experience. 

As social beings, we thrive when we’re in a healthy community. Healthy communities give us a safe space to take risks. Risks like removing the barriers we use to protect ourselves from others. After just a few interviews with BHC cooperative residents, I found four main elements in our cooperative communities that allow people to heal their social ailments and achieve personal growth. 

Structure

Structure is the foundation for a community. Formal and informal structure determine how people interact, make decisions, navigate conflict, and allocate power. Our cooperatives structure themselves around consensus, equal power and responsibility among residents, safe spaces, non-violent communication, and restorative conflict resolution.

BHC residents use consensus decision-making to determine their cooperative’s actions. This form of decision making, when implemented well, ensures that all voices are heard and have power. Regular house meetings, combined with consensus, provide a safe space for people to share their feelings and opinions regarding community matters.

When conflict occurs, the cooperators use restorative conversations and mediation. These practices restore relationships in place of doling out punishments. Regarding restorative meditation, Mango Manor Resident and Board Rep Kenn Penn says, “living in a cooperative has pushed me to grow. The mediation training appealed to me, especially the underlying philosophy of the whole thing. I can read, I can chill, I can breathe a little bit, instead of being in constant fear of being kicked out. And so in that regard, I’ve been able to just breathe. To enjoy life a little bit more easily.”

Community  structure is the foundation for other community-based benefits to grow. BHC cooperative structures provide a level of confidence among residents that they will be safe and respected. 

Support & Safety

The feeling of safety is one of our most basic needs. When we feel safe, we are able to inhabit ourselves more fully. We can explore who we are. 

When we combine safety with support, we can allow ourselves to take risks and grow. Healthy communities create a space of support and safety for people to grapple with and repair their social ailments. 

Kenn Penn, Mango Manor Resident and Board Rep says, “on a personal note, I would say that I have had, and still do actually have, some significant and pervasive anxiety issues, in terms of interacting with people and trusting people. I would say there’s safety and support here, despite the fact that I may be compelled to return to habituated ways of coping and or interacting. There’s often great support and good vibes.” 

Kenn’s cooperative embraces him through his healing process. Since they know him as a housemate and friend, they support him. 

Feeling included despite not being perfect (aka being human) is healing in itself. Acceptance from a community gives us an avenue to accept ourselves.

Marcel Junige, Masala Resident says:

“I think a lot of people also benefit from healing their own personal wounds. That’s a personal aspect for myself, but I’ve seen that in other people as well. So if people have experienced discrimination or physical or emotional abuse they benefit from the inclusivity of this community and the safe space, knowing that there is no place for discrimination here. They are just included, as whatever they are. They can be authentic here. They don’t have to hide it. They can express themselves freely. They can set their boundaries and keep their boundaries. And that’s respected. I think that’s benefiting a lot of people and providing personal growth for that.”

Rebecca Uli, Masala and Ostara alum, says:

“When I first moved in, I didn’t feel like I had much of a voice and part of that was probably from being in an abusive relationship, but I felt like the process of a house meeting where we go around and talk about how we’re feeling. That’s just not something I felt comfortable with at all, but I eventually got comfortable with that. And. I’m not just speaking about my own personal state, but weighing in on household matters. I felt like it helped me really find my voice and it also really helped me have better boundaries.”

In both of these cases, the community in BHC cooperative houses provided space for people to accept themselves. Acceptance is power. Power to heal. And power to act. 

Purpose

Purpose is the combination of wanting change and the feeling that one can actually create that change. Living in a cooperative provides cooperators many worthwhile purposes. Within the BHC, purposeful opportunities range anywhere from wanting the lawn to look nice to implementing cooperative system-wide change. 

Residents of housing cooperatives have power over their homes, and communities. Our residents have “rights commensurate with ownership,” meaning that they make their own decisions about their homes and community activities. 

Cooperatives provide purpose in three major ways – physically, communally, and personally. Physically, cooperative residents have the responsibility and purpose to upkeep their homes – like any homeowner. They garden, clean, paint, repair, and more. It can be highly satisfying and healing to maintain and improve one’s home in this way. 

Communally, cooperatives give people the opportunity to contribute to a thriving community. 

Personally, cooperatives can provide a space for people to live their values. Marcel Junige, Masala resident and electrical engineering researcher realized he wanted to live in a community so that he could better achieve his communal and personal goals. He says, “I need some second life purpose that is more tangible, more direct, where I see immediate results that I can also say, ‘okay, doing this impacts right away for the good of this little community or health of the planet.’” He says he wanted to “become more minimalistic, share resources, live more sustainably, grow foods as close to the house as possible.” Now that he’s living at Masala, he’s proud of how he daily contributes to his community and to the world in a way that matches his values. 

One can live in a cooperative and contribute daily to a deeper purpose of community, sustainability, connection, support, or most other values they might have. That’s the beauty of a supportive community. It can help amplify and fulfill our purpose in ways that we can’t do so easily alone. 

Self-Reflection

Sometimes, it is much easier to see ourselves when we see ourselves through others’ eyes. When we live in community, we have many more opportunities to be confronted with ourselves. Our actions and words are reflected back to us through the reactions of others. Kenn Penn, states it like this, “it’s like on a daily basis being confronted with the best of yourself and the worst of yourself. Both of those are good because being confronted with the best of yourself, it’s like, ‘yay. I’m awesome.’ Being confronted with your worst is like, ‘okay, here’s an opportunity for me to do it differently.’ Even though sometimes it just takes a lot of repetition.”

Community gives us a mirror upon which we can determine what we want to keep and what we maybe want to put aside. At first, this can be difficult, because many of us aren’t used to constant exposure to these parts of ourselves. However, it is that exposure that gives us the opportunity to better see the problem (or beauty). Once we see it, we can then choose what to do with it. 

Emily Beaver, Chrysalis and Board Rep Alum, struggled with anxiety before moving into the Chrysalis co-op. Living in community gave her more opportunities to confront her anxiety and give it less power. She says, “one of the ways that my anxiety manifests is through me perceiving someone else’s issue that they’re having as being a reflection of something that I did… but with all the people that live here, everything that they’re going through, I had to learn how to let go of that. And living here has definitely helped me get over that for the most part.”

In this case, Emily could choose to let her anxieties overwhelm her or to develop new ways of thinking. Community provided her constant exposure to her anxieties while also giving her safety, support, structure, and purpose to have the space to readjust and grow. 

Conclusion

It is easy to stick with what we’ve always known. We may have social hangups, but we’ve survived. It is much harder to heal. Healing requires change. Change can be terrifying. It requires us to take down our mental barriers and be vulnerable to ourselves and others. 

Healthy cooperative communities provide the structure, safety, support, purpose, and opportunities for self-reflection that give people space to take the risks they need to heal. These elements of healthy communities give us space to change for the better. 

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