The concept of self-care has radical roots, but its history is often lost in today’s messaging that equates consumerism to caring for yourself. What’s also missing from the mainstream conversation is how community care — not just self-care — is key to collective wellbeing. But what is community care, exactly? “If self-care is about what you do for yourself, then community care is what you put into and what you can receive from the community you have built around yourself and the community you live in,” says Donna Oriowo, therapist, and author.
Here’s how community care and self-care are connected, what community care looks like in practice, and how it supports all of our well-being.
What Is Community Care?
Unlike the messages we often receive about self-care, which focus on individual efforts to achieve wellness, community care consists of the collective efforts we make to be healthy and happy. “Community care differs from self-care because self-care is about the individual; community care is about the community,” says Ajita Robinson, grief and trauma therapist and author of The Gift of Grief. “The community benefits when each individual is well, whole, and thriving.” This can happen on a micro and macro level.
Sharing resources is also community care. “I define community care as how we show up and create space for each other,” says Rayna Smaller. “It’s how we share and create resources among one another and create dependable relationships.”
The History of Self-Care and Community Care
Now you know what community care is. But how did it come about? “Self-care and community-care are very much linked,” Oriowo says. “There is only so far self-care can go without a community around you to help support you in the moments when you may not be at your best. True self-care does not look like the hyper-individualism we have been taught.” In other words, there’s no community care versus self-care: Rather, the two complement each other, and both are necessary for individual and collective wellbeing.
The emergence of self-care as a concept can be traced back to health care settings in the 1950s. The term was initially used to describe actions that people living in care institutions could perform in order to have a sense of autonomy, like exercising and grooming themselves. That definition has since shifted, and today, self-care is defined as the activities and practices that we engage in regularly to maintain our mental and physical health and wellbeing, per the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. So although it may seem like self-care and community care are two independent practices, both can ultimately support the health and well-being of ourselves and those around us.
What Does Community Care Look Like?
Interdependence is the root of community care, Robinson says. “It is designed to create stability, flexibility, and safety. We each have the capacity to create community care circles in our own spheres of influence,” she says.
On a micro-level, practicing community care can look like this:
- Cooking or cleaning for a loved one who is going through a tough time
- Asking for help from your support system when you need it (and reciprocating it)
- Getting to know your neighbors
On a Macro-level community care can look like this:
- Community clothing swaps
- Mutual aid
- Community fridges
- Digital spaces that offer bonding and connection over a particular topic or for a specific group of people
- Donating or organizing donations for community members who have experienced a crisis
- Connecting people who are unemployed to work opportunities (if you can)
- Hosting a regular community gathering
The Health Benefits of Community Care
“Moving closer to wellness is a collective, collaborative effort,” Oriowo says. “One of us cannot be well and everyone else is not. In working together to help ensure others’ needs are met, we are most likely to feel well individually and as a community.” In other words, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Shifting your focus from self-care to community care can help you and others feel connected. For example, tapping into your network can help stave off feelings of loneliness, Oriowo says.
Other benefits of social connection include:
- Increased happiness
- Better health
Social support and connectedness are linked to the following health effects:
- Decreased depressive symptoms
- Maintaining a beneficial body mass index
- Controlling blood sugar levels
- Mitigating post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms
And apart from the very real health perks of being in a community with and caring for others, community care also invites us to imagine less-tangible benefits, like new systems of being. Marginalized people especially are often expected to self-care their way out of social inequities. But self-care on its own — especially more surface-level practices like an occasional day off or a nice bubble bath — doesn’t break down the barriers to wellness. Instead, a commitment to and practice of community care can help to foster health and healing in the most vulnerable populations. “Community care helps address the needs and gaps: It empowers us to take care of each other,” Smaller says. “We don’t always have to wait for organizations or the government to see us and help us. We have the power to help ourselves.”