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High social capital? Less posttraumatic stress!

Why do some people suffer from posttraumatic stress and others - who have experienced the same extreme event – don’t? This study about post disaster mental health found evidence for the relationship between the health of an individual and social (collective) variables.

HealthNet TPO believes that the health of a population is more than the sum of its parts. This means that when working on improving people’s health, one should also pay attention to the context these people are living in. Over the years we have seen that conflict and disasters often destroy the existing social fabric: families are breaking up, people mistrust each other and economic, political and legal systems malfunction or disappear. This causes social tensions, insecurity, damage to the (health) infrastructure and poverty. Because this communal destruction manifests in physical, psychological and social aspects, these situations can be considered as “collective trauma”.  

As a strategy we bring community members together again to acknowledge and tackle these problems; hereby addressing the so-called social determinants of health. Social capital (definition of Robert Putman[1]), “refers to the collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”.  Social capital thus is one of the components defining the social determinants of health.

Although more and more organizations follow the same approach, up till now, there was not much scientific evidence for the working mechanisms of this approach. This paper shows that high levels of social capital in the community are indirectly salutary for individual posttraumatic stress. See the abstract of the article:

“Many scholars have advocated that the time has come to provide empirical evidence of the mechanisms that associate community social capital with individual disaster mental health. For this purpose we conducted a study (n=232) one year after a flood (2008) in Morpeth, a rural town in northern England. We selected posttraumatic stress as an indicator of disaster mental health. Our multilevel model shows that high community social capital is indirectly salutary for individual posttraumatic stress. In particular, in communities (defined as postcode areas) with high structural social capital, the results suggest that individuals confide in the social context (high cognitive social capital) to address disaster-related demands (high collective efficacy), and employ less individual psychosocial resources (i.e. coping strategies and social support). This “conservation of individual psychosocial resources” in a salutary social context decreases the association between the appraisal of the disaster and posttraumatic stress. As a result of this mechanism, individuals suffer less from posttraumatic stress in communities with high social capital. These findings provide new insights how intervention policies aimed at strengthening both objective and subjective dimensions of social capital may reduce post-disaster mental health.” (

The study thus proves that after a disaster, changing collective variables will affect the perceived posttraumatic stress in addition – or independent from – the variables defined on an individual level (such as experience of the event, appraisal of the event and coping with the event). As the community systems strengthening approach is focused on changing these collective variables, the paper shows it is an effective way of improving the health of people in distress. We hope also (institutional) donors will recognize this and provide funds that can facilitate communities to restore their social fabric. 

[1] Putnam, Robert. (2000), "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" (Simon and Schuster).

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