Community membership and individual well-being


I am thrilled to share a post today from Sara, a recent MSW graduate from Toronto, now working in Montreal. Today’s post is part one of THREE, and in it she chews on some very difficult questions about community membership and exclusion, and the effects of both on persons struggling with their mental health and/or addictions.

My first internship was in a community-based setting in downtown Toronto. The organization offered programs and services including settlement services for immigrants and refugees, a transitional housing program, and an addictions program for people struggling with substance abuse issues.

As a student in this placement, I was responsible for case management tasks. I worked with people to complete government forms or subsidized housing applications and facilitated emotional support groups. All of the case files were kept in a secure computer system, and I recall one day inputting information and seeing a giant red X beside the name of a person on file. The more I looked, the more red X’s I found beside names of people I did not know.

Mike Twohy at The New Yorker

The challenges of dealing with people

When I next saw my supervisor, I asked her what the X’s meant. She informed me that those marked the people who were banned from services or from entering the building due to being under the influence of alcohol or drugs at previous appointments. I questioned further, asking if every X was simply for an instance of substance use. She replied that that was the case for most files although some Xs were the result of other “undesirable behavior,” or because of some sort of conflict on the property.

Community and conflict

This practice conflicted with my idea of community. Community is a big and tricky idea, often challenging to engage with. Nonetheless, it was this big and tricky idea that drew me to social work in the first place.

The social psychologists McMillan & Chavis describe a sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” Research indicates that sense of community and related factors have significant positive impacts on a range of outcomes for individuals and groups. Social epidemiologists have demonstrated how community connections, belonging, networks, cohesion, and social capital play a significant role in the health, well-being, and mental health outcomes of populations and sub-groups.


Most social service agencies seem to share the Gandhian idea that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Often those ‘vulnerable members’ include people struggling with addictions and their mental health, struggles which manifest in ‘difficult’ behaviours. So what happens when people are barred from services? How do those people experience those punitive measures?

Stay tuned for parts two and three, coming soon!

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