Benefits of Community Building for Mental Health

I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that spending time with folks from the Myaamia community has so many benefits for my mental health. I frequently feel rejuvenated both emotionally and mentally when I get to interact with my relatives.

This benefit of community-building was one observation made by tribal leadership in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as the cultural revitalization movement, referred to as the Myaamia Eemamwiciki ‘Miami Awakening,’ was taking place. However, why does community building benefit mental health and what do the results of the Nipwaayoni Acquisition and Assessment Team’s (NAATeam) work have to say about this?

Elements of a Strong Community

Before we talk about why strong communities benefit peoples’ mental health, we have to first talk about what makes up a strong community in the first place. Scholars suggest that a strong community has four specific components: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.[1] I’ll break each one down further with examples of how the Myaamia community fulfills these components.

A group of people connected by twine strings to form a web.
Eewansaapita participants, staff, and guests participate in the community web activity at the beginning of camp.
Photo credit: Jonathan M. Fox


Membership is generally an individual’s feeling that they are a part of that community, that they belong in that community. When identifying membership, communities typically set certain boundaries that permit people who fall within those boundaries to self-identify as a member of the community. Psychologically, these boundaries have been evolutionarily advantageous to humans as they help us to distinguish who can and cannot be trusted.

For Myaamiaki, we have our own process that allows us to enroll as members of the Tribe. Enrollment inherently means that one is a member of the tribe and therefore the tribal community. There are also less “official” ways of recognizing membership in the Myaamia community as there are many people who are considered members of the community (but not the Tribe) for their important contributions to the continuance of the Nation. Though I cannot speak on behalf of others’ experiences, it has been my experience that if you fall within these boundaries, the Miami Tribe tends to welcome you with open arms.


The factor of influence is a two-way, reciprocal relationship. Members who belong in a group must have a voice and be able to influence the decisions pertaining to the group. At the same time, the group should also have a substantial influence on the individual members. The members must feel that they are getting something back from the community.

The elected members of the 2021 Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Business Committee
2021 Business Committee (LtoR): Tera Hatley, Donya Williams, Doug Lankford, Dustin Olds, Scott Willard
Photo by Karen L. Baldwin

Within the Myaamia community, our leaders are often elected on the basis that they listen to the voice of the people. This inherently means that when Myaamiaki speak up with their opinions and perspectives, their voices are heard. At the same time, when they do give back to the community, they often receive benefits from the community as a whole. Additionally, this sense of reciprocity is an important value within the Myaamia community. The give-and-take within the natural world occurs within relationships with humans, animals, and our environment more broadly.

In fact, this came up when I interviewed community members for my dissertation about what living well means to them. One person said:

“There is a reciprocal relationship you need to have with everything, all creation really. The understanding that it will always come off balance but you always — it will always go this way or that way but when that happens you need to bring it back in some way… That idea that we as humans are vulnerable and we rely upon other people and the plant world and the animal world. We rely upon all those.”

Integration and Fulfillment of Needs

A strong community offers resources that fill a need for its members. Strong communities tend to work together so that all or most members both contribute to and benefit from the skills and knowledge of the community.

In the Myaamia community, there are so many resources offered to tribal members: financial, healthcare, language, culture, emotional, and so many more. In my experience, this is often a classic case of “you get out of it what you put in.”  The more you are able to offer your own time and energy to helping out with the community (even simply attending events and being with the community), the more you will get back from the community.

Shared Emotional Connection

Finally, strong communities have a shared emotional connection. This is a feeling of bond or a general sense that the group is cohesive and is stable over time. This can be enhanced by many things including a shared history, more opportunities for interaction, and investment by all parties.

Again, this is a difficult factor for me to speak on behalf of the whole community as I am sure everyone’s feeling of bond or closeness is unique. However, the energy and care that is shown toward all members at tribal events, to me, feels palpable. I have had the privilege of being able to talk to a few people in the last few years who have attended their first ever tribal events and they have all indicated that they feel so included and that the community just has a strong bond and cares about all its members.

Mental Health Benefits of a Sense of Community

Generally the experience of feeling connected to a community (any community) has many benefits to one’s mental health. One psychological theory gives us insight into why; self-determination theory suggests that social connection is one of three basic psychological needs of humans. When this need goes unmet, we are driven and motivated to do what it takes to satisfy that need for connection. When this need is met, people experience wellbeing and personal growth, promoting positive mental health outcomes.[2]

2019 Adult Summer Experience participants displaying their completed paintings
2019 Adult Summer Experience participants displaying their completed paintings.
Photo by Doug Peconge

To provide more evidence for the benefits of community, research shows that people who indicate they feel a strong sense of belong to a community also show greater:

Thus, it is clear that something about belonging to a community is important for our mental health and general functioning. But, what do the results from research within our own community have to say about this?

NAATeam Research findings

The Nipwaayoni Acquisition and Assessment Team’s (NAATeam) purpose is to assess the impact that language and cultural revitalization have on community outcomes. In other words, how do community members (individual- and community-level) experience the revitalization experience?

One of the outcomes in particular that we examine and have consistently observed is that reconnection with Myaamia nipwaayoni ‘Miami knowledge’ strengthens a sense of connection amongst tribal members. Before participation in educational programming (Eemamwiciki programs or the Heritage Award Program at Miami University, for example), people often indicate that they know they are Myaamia, but don’t feel particularly connected to the community. After participation in this programming, they feel the sense of connected reciprocity. They feel like they are a part of the community and also that the community welcomes them.

Bar graph showing pre- and post-test data regarding respondents' sense of belonging
Graph depicting pre- and post-test data on respondents’ sense of belonging to the Myaamia Community or Nation
Courtesy of the Myaamia Center’s Office of Assessment and Evaluation

In fact, one of the questions we ask all students who participate in the Heritage Award Program before they attend the program (pre-test) as well as after they finish the program (post-test) is whether they have a strong sense of belonging to the Myaamia Community. We see that before attending the program, most (75%) indicate that they either disagree or strongly disagree with that statement. Not a single student indicated “strongly agree” at pre-test. However, by post-test, over 96% of participants respond that they either agree or strongly agree. Not a single student disagrees with that statement at post-test.

We see a similar trend as this in other programs, like the Eemamwiciki summer programs, as well. This tells us that there is something about these programs that connects people to the Myaamia community and makes them personally feel like they belong.

Myaamia-specific Ways to Strengthen Community

So, given all of this, how can we as individual Myaamia people contribute to the strengthening of our tribal community?

We know that the actual use of the infrastructure supporting a community will help people in that community feel connected to the community. When people attend events put on by a community and engage with other community members, this only strengthens the community as a whole.[9] Therefore, for Myaamiaki, it is imperative to show up to events. Whenever feasible for you and your family, try to attend community gatherings (winter gathering, annual meeting, fall gathering, etc.). Beyond just attendance, engage and connect with the people that are there. I notice often in my research that people show up to events, yet sit within their nuclear family groups. Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to connect with even one person you don’t know well will help to build a sense of community both for yourself and that other person. If we are all doing this, it will help build a stronger community network.

Additionally, having shared values and expectations for the spaces a community is in can help to build a stronger community.[10] Myaamiaki share many values that have been passed down across generations. For example, we know that we all live by the value eeweentiyankwi ‘we are all related.’ This is something we have historically put on t-shirts, we greet each other by saying aya eeweemilaani ‘hello my relative,’ and is reflected in the interactions we have with one another. This recognition and expression of shared values helps people know what to expect in our interactions with one another, contributing to a sense of trust and security within the community.

Myaamia community members gathered in Miami, OK for the 2019 Family Day events
Myaamia community members gathered in Miami, OK for the 2019 Family Day events at the Drake House
Photo by Karen L. Baldwin

Speaking of trust, that is another important factor in a strong community.[11] We have to know that we can rely on one another and on our leadership to both support and challenge the community so that we can continue to grow as a people. Therefore, as Myaamiaki, it is important to engage in actions that promote this sense of trust. Honesty, communication, consistency, open participation, helping others, vulnerability: these are all ways that we can interact with one another throughout the year that will help to build trust as a community.

Finally, within any strong community, there has to be a shared emotional feeling. This sense of spirit involves a space where folks can be themselves and build excitement around what everyone in the community is doing.[12] It would be great if everyone could contribute their strengths to the community. No matter what you are good at or even just enjoy doing (even if you aren’t “good”), I am certain our community would benefit from your talents and generosity. Seeing other people do what they like and are good at is what pumps me up to be around the community. Folks who cook well, bust out some excellent ribbonwork pieces, or even just go around being a supportive family member all make me so excited to be in Myaamia spaces. The more we get of that, the more we can support each other and the more we will all benefit.


A strong feeling of community has been one of the factors that enabled our continuance as a community throughout years of removal and living in diaspora. We also know that stronger connections are a reliable outcome of the language and cultural revitalization process. Because of the many benefits to well-being that stem from a strong sense of community,  I would love to see the Myaamia sense of community continue to grow and evolve.

[1] McMillan, David W., and David M. Chavis. “Sense of community: A definition and theory.” Journal of community psychology 14, no. 1 (1986): 6-23.

[2] Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American psychologist 55, no. 1 (2000): 68.

[3] Davidson, William B., and Patrick R. Cotter. “The relationship between sense of community and subjective well‐being: A first look.” Journal of community psychology 19, no. 3 (1991): 246-253.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sonn, Christopher C., and Adrian T. Fisher. “Psychological sense of community in a politically constructed group.” Journal of Community Psychology 24, no. 4 (1996): 417-430.

[6] Prezza, Miretta, and Stefano Costantini. “Sense of community and life satisfaction: Investigation in three different territorial contexts.” Journal of community & applied social psychology 8, no. 3 (1998): 181-194.

[7] Gattino, Silvia, Norma De Piccoli, Omar Fassio, and Chiara Rollero. “Quality of life and sense of community. A study on health and place of residence.” Journal of Community Psychology 41, no. 7 (2013): 811-826.

[8] Talò, Cosimo, Terri Mannarini, and Alessia Rochira. “Sense of community and community participation: A meta-analytic review.” Social indicators research 117, no. 1 (2014): 1-28.

[9] Francis, Jacinta, Billie Giles-Corti, Lisa Wood, and Matthew Knuiman. “Creating sense of community: The role of public space.” Journal of environmental psychology 32, no. 4 (2012): 401-409.

[10] Rovai, Alfred P. “Building sense of community at a distance.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 3, no. 1 (2002): 1-16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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