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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Social Belonging

Decades of research across disciplines has demonstrated that being socially connected is a basic human need and vital for wellbeing (1-4).

Social Belonging Introduction

Decades of research across disciplines has demonstrated that being socially connected is a basic human need and vital for wellbeing (1-4). Close personal relationships and a sense of belonging to a community can both benefit wellbeing and protect against poor mental health (5, 6). Social status, acceptance and attention have also been shown to have positive influence, while social environments that are perceived as hostile, in which individuals may experience harassment, discrimination, abuse, ostracism or social isolation, can have severe negative impacts (7, 8).

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Social belonging has also been recognised as vital for student persistence, learning and academic performance (9, 10). Loneliness, and an absence of belonging, for example, has been shown to negatively impact performance, while a lack of psychological safety and learning environment that is problematic in other ways can also reduce learning (10, 11).

Given the centrality of the curriculum to student experience, this is an important context in which students can find a sense of community, connection and belonging. Many students may not have the opportunity to take up social offers within a university – e.g., commuting students or those with caring responsibilities. A sense of belonging to institution and discipline for students must therefore be created within the curriculum (12), whilst also recognising that students from minoritized backgrounds may not see themselves reflected in their discipline, with negative consequences. The social learning environment must also support all students to feel safe to learn, make mistakes and grow. The learning environment must be inclusive and place value on all of the students within.

This section explores the ways in which psycho-social and cultural factors impact on student learning and wellbeing and offers some ways of positively influencing social belonging via curriculum design and delivery.

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  1. Baumeister RF, Leary MR. The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin. 1995 May;117(3):497.
  2. Lee RM, Robbins SB. Understanding social connectedness in college women and men. Journal of Counseling & Development. 2000 Oct;78(4):484-91.
  3. Sheldon KM, Bettencourt BA. Psychological need‐satisfaction and subjective well‐being within social groups. British Journal of Social Psychology. 2002 Mar;41(1):25-38.
  4. Haslam SA, Haslam C, Cruwys T, Jetten J, Bentley SV, Fong P, Steffens NK. Social identity makes group-based social connection possible: Implications for loneliness and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology. 2021 Jul 24.
  5. Minkler M, Wallerstein N, Wilson N. Improving health through community organization and community building. K. Glanz, BK Rimer, K. Viswanath, Health behavior and health education. theory, research, and practice. 2008:37-58.
  6. Hagerty BM, Williams A. The effects of sense of belonging, social support, conflict, and loneliness on depression. Nursing research. 1999 Jul 1;48(4):215-9.
  7. Mann SJ. Alienation in the learning environment: a failure of community? Studies in Higher Education. 2005 Feb 1;30(1):43-55.
  8. Meyer, I. H. (2007). Prejudice and discrimination as social stressors. In The Health of Sexual Minorities (pp. 242-267). Springer, Boston, MA.
  9. Phan HP. Antecedents and consequences of school belonging: Empirical evidence and implications for practices. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology. 2013 Nov 1;3(2):117.
  10. Layous K, Davis EM, Garcia J, Purdie-Vaughns V, Cook JE, Cohen GL. Feeling left out, but affirmed: Protecting against the negative effects of low belonging in college. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2017 Mar 1;69:227-31.
  11. Cohen GL, Sherman DK. The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual review of psychology. 2014 Jan 3;65:333-71.
  12. LeBlanc C, Sonnenberg LK, King S, Busari J. Medical education leadership: from diversity to inclusivity. GMS journal for medical education. 2020;37(2).