Research

A key objective for the MARCH Network was to support research on social, cultural & community assets and mental health.

The highlight for me has been seeing our sector better informed about policy and research developments. I’m feeling buoyed by increased awareness of the quality of research in this field.
MARCH Member

What is the impact on Mental Health?

There is now a substantial and rigorous literature showing that community engagement can positively impact on physical health, mental health and wellbeing. Social, cultural and community assets prevent the development of health conditions, help people manage and treat their symptoms, and promote health promotion through aiding health communication, affecting determinants of health, and supporting the work of healthcare professionals.

Crucially, these benefits are felt by people regardless of factors such as their demographics, socio-economic status, and other health conditions and behaviours.

How is this impact achieved?

Community activities contain ‘active ingredients’ that interact via certain ‘mechanisms of action’ to influence our health. Ingredients can be thought of as specific components that make up the ‘what’ of an activity, whereas mechanisms are the processes that link active ingredients to health outcomes: the how. Mechanisms operate at individual levels but also at group and community levels.

Through extensive focus groups with our members, as well as undertaking the largest review to date, we have identified over 130 ingredients and over 600 psychological, biological, social and behavioural mechanisms.

To enable understanding and further research, we’ve developed a conceptual model called the Multi-level Leisure Mechanisms Framework. We’ve also applied the principles of ‘complexity science’, which are widely used in healthcare research, to help researchers understand how active ingredients and mechanisms interact with each other and lead to health outcomes.

Research complexity

What are the barriers to accessing community activities?

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Given the health benefits of engaging in community activities, it is important that individuals are able to access them. However, not everybody does.

To explore this more, we ran a Citizen Science Experiment with the BBC Get Creative Festival, interviewed dozens of MARCH Network members, and analysed data from cohort studies such as the UK Taking Part Study. We found that there are many individual factors that predict people engaging less than others, including low income or education, coming from an ethnic minority background, or not having engaged as a child so not feeling comfortable engaging. Schools help to equalize engagement, but if families are not supported, inequalities can still arise among young children.

Where you live can make a difference too. People living in areas of higher deprivation are less likely to engage in community activities, but if they do engage it can have more benefits for their mental health than people in more affluent areas.

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Mental health itself can also affect our community behaviours. People who are less happy or more anxious or depressed tend to engage less in community activities. For some people, this is because their mental health affects their motivations to engage and makes them feel less confident or capable.

Schemes such as Social Prescribing can help remove some of these barriers. These schemes connect community organisations with healthcare practitioners who refer their patients to community activities. However, some people may still face hurdles such as social anxiety or challenges with transport, and community organisations may find it difficult to connect with such schemes without training, financial resources or additional support. GPs may also feel they have insufficient training or understanding of social prescribing to refer their patients.

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Fortunately, our research has also identified interventions that could remove these barriers for people and help make community engagement more equitable.

Download the BBC Get Creative Data here for your own analyses

Download the BBC Feel Good Test Data here for your own analyses

Explore how we can make community activities more ‘mental health friendly’

Moving forwards

MARCH has worked to support the future of research on community engagement and mental health.

Over 300 members of our network have co-produced a new Research Agenda with us. It identifies the most pressing research gaps in the field and highlights those that are highest priority for different sectors.

We have funded 7 research projects that address:

We also supported 12 Special Interest Groups and 8 Sandpit Events aimed at developing new research proposals. To date, these have led to over £20 million of new research funding being awarded to our members to take this work forwards.

Do you want to learn more about how social, cultural and community engagement affects mental health? Take part in our online training course run in partnership with the Royal Society for Public Health.