Can You Have Too Much Community?

Posted on August 3, 2011
60th-Anniversary.jpg60th-Anniversary.jpgFrancesca Pernice-Duca
Assistant Professor, Wayne State University
Wendy A. Case
MA Candidate, Counseling & Art Therapy, Wayne State University
Last year, a fellow colleague and clubhouse director, frustrated with changes occurring in his state about placing potential “time-limits” for clubhouse membership asked me, “Is there such thing as too much community?” My first reaction, coming from the roots of a large Italian family and community was to say “yes!” However, upon further thought, I realized that community can’t be measured in quantity, it’s just there. You can choose to engage or not…and setting a time limit is like saying, “Okay, that’s it. You’ve had enough community.”  That is, there was no set “time-limit” on being a community member of my cultural or ethnic group.
The same, I believe, is true for intentional recovery communities - such as clubhouses. Clubhouse members, like other community members, come and go.  It gives us the feeling that we are part of a larger, dependable structure. They may visit after being gone for while and feel welcomed as though they had never left! We champion those who use clubhouse community as a stepping stone or bridge to inclusion to other communities, but it’s helpful to know that you have a social network that supports you ---and is there when you want to come back!
This whole thing leads me to think about the importance of community, social networks, and our health. For example, studies have continually pointed out that the lack of social connections is associated with higher mortality rates and psychological distress in the general population (e.g., Berkman, 1995; Berkman et al., 2000). Social networks provide us with a new identity, - a meaningful role, which then gives us greater sense of purpose and attachment to others.
I like to refer to clubhouses as intentional recovery communities because they provide us access to social networks, social capital, and thus peer support that can serve as a vehicle to the recovery process. These social networks are thus conceptualized as personal communities that support healthy identities.
Thus recovery is partly a social process in nature. It is situated in a community structure that helps us to appreciate our strengths, learn new perspectives, and work with others who share similar successes and challenges. Relationships, social network ties, and the feeling of belonging, that is, a sense of community is very much a part of clubhouses and recovery. For example, Seymour Sarason (a seminal researcher in sense of community) describes community as “the perception of similarity with others, an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving and doing for others what one expects from them, the feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure”(1977, p.157).
Community is a place as well as a feeling. Other well acknowledged researchers in this area, such as McMillian and Chavis (1986), describe a sense of community as “strong feeling of belongingness, integration of needs, reciprocal influence, and shared history a person has toward a particular reference group.”
Well, I thought, how can one have too much of that?
For those who do not understand the‘magic' behind the clubhouse, it is difficult to understand the concept of“membership for life.” Yet the science behind the clubhouse community confirms this magic. Studies attempt to establish whether clubhouse members and staff perceive the clubhouse as community, and if the elements that compose this community consist of a network of people who represent a substitute family who share beliefs, values, and lived experiences (Herman et al., 2005; Carolan et al., in press). For example, the shared experiences of living with an illness and working through recovery, such as cancer, schizophrenia, or an addiction can serve as the unique element that bonds us to others who understand.
Clubhouse communities incorporate social networks and social exchange theory by providing an equalitarian environment based on mutual obligations and exchanges. What sets clubhouse communities apart from other peer oriented programs for people with mental illness is the emphasis on the shared and equal responsibilities for the clubhouse.
Why does the clubhouse focus on daily work of the clubhouse that benefit the clubhouse and its members rather than on the members themselves? Because working together within this community has indirect benefits for everyone. For example, the daily routines of working in the kitchen, clerical unit, or outreach, provides us with opportunities to mutually work together, and exchange emotional, instrumental, informational support, which in turn can support our new found identities and skills and move us toward greater recovery experiences. (But just to note, Clubhouses also have direct services that benefit its members, such as housing assistance, employment opportunities, to name a few)
Wendy Case, an MA student in the Counseling and Art Therapy program at Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan, is 14 years into recovery. She has worked and been part of other recovery communities and strongly believes certain elements of the milieu promote community and recovery. She believes that the use of humor is a significant healing force in clubhouses and a major incentive for people to keep coming back. “When you are struggling with a difficult condition or a lifestyle adjustment, joy and laughter can often seem out of reach,” says Case. “Intentional recovery communities have the power to lift a person out of the ‘uniqueness’ of his or her condition and to promote loving bonds that engender positive feelings. It’s like a second family for many people – which is important, as many families of origin must endure their own adjustment process or may be ill-equipped to offer the kind of support the individual needs.”
What makes you feel comfortable about being at the clubhouse? What about the clubhouse gives you a sense of being part of this community?  And how does being part of the clubhouse contribute to your experiences of recovery?
Berkman, L.F. (1995). The role of social relations in health promotion. Psychosomatic
Medicine,57, 245–254.
Berkman, L. F., Glass, T., Brissette, I., & Seeman, T. E. (2000). From social integration to health:
Durkheim in the new millennium. Social Science & Medicine, 51(6), 843–857.
Carolan, M.., Onaga, E., Pernice-Duca, F., & Jimenez, T. (in press). A place to be: The role of
clubhouses in facilitating social support. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal.
Herman, S., Onaga, E., Pernice-Duca, F., Oh, S., & Ferguson, C. (2005). Sense of community in
clubhouse programs: Member and staff concepts. American Journal of Community Psychology, 36, 343–356.
McMillian, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal
of Community Psychology, 14, 6–23.
Sarason, S. B. (1974). The psychological sense of community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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