It is May 10th 2021. I'm in the UK. Since 2008, our country has faced austerity measures that have seen health and social services stripped to their core. We have seen rises in poverty, in homelessness, in inequality, in racism, in stigma, in domestic abuse, in discrimination, and in mental health difficulties.
Politicians and the media have revelled in contests of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’, ‘Leavers’ vs. ‘Remainers’, ‘Democrats’ vs. ‘Republicans', 'White' vs. 'Black', 'Scroungers' vs. 'Hard-working', 'Disabled' vs. 'Able'. I could go on.
In the meantime, social media algorithms have decided which news and which people we want to see more of; which stories are going to get us to spend the most time scrolling and clicking? What will best stir up that outrage? The outrage which keeps us glued to our phones to allow more money to be made from the ads that we see.
We have been placed in our own echo-chambers: ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’.
We have either picked or been allocated our sides. And whether you are with us or against us will determine who you see as belonging, and who you see as an outsider; who you see as deserving of ‘our’ support, and who you do not. Who you see. Full stop.
And now, after a year of collective, albeit socially distant, trauma (and with that collective trauma disproportionately affecting some groups more collectively than others), we prepare to see cafes and restaurants cautiously re-open their doors as we return to normal, or take steps towards a 'new normal'. And some people will be really looking forward to going out for a meal to meet up with a friend (after a year indoors, I know I am). But others, many many others, will be anxiously working out how they will get to their local foodbank without petrol or bus fare so that at the very least, they can feed their child.
What will normal look like as we return? Will it be the normal I have described above, which we have become so used to and which for a vast number of people is not a particularly nice normal. Or are we moving into a new normal? And if it is a new normal, what will that look like? What do we want that to look like?
Oh, and it is also the start of Mental Health Awareness week.
For now, on that, I have just two observations.
The first is that mental health cannot be seen in isolation from the realities of what we have lived through. From policies to attitudes, from the media to job centres. From hospitals to communities. From social relationships, trauma, policies, health, education, financial and occupational barriers, deprivation, stigma, inequality - all of this has an impact.
The second is that ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’, isn’t restricted to political abstractions. It plays out in all parts of society in the embodied experiences of its citizens. This includes patients and professionals.
We are all human. And I would argue that we need to find commonalities in our shared humanity in order to agree on where problems lie and how we can go about tackling them. But first, we need to recognise that, for all of us, our experiences, our views, our values, our knowledge, are only being seen from one side of an Us-Them fence.
Relative to the other side, are we at an advantage or a disadvantage? Why? Are we any more or less powerful? What rules and values do we have based on the group norms on our side of the fence? Is there a version of a ‘keep off the grass’ sign on one side but not the other, for instance? What prejudices and values do we hold based on the ‘us’ with which we define ourselves? And what can we do with this knowledge to make the changes we feel are important?
Without examining this, as a starting point, I would argue that raising mental health awareness isn’t much more effective than shouting into our own echo chamber. And those in our chambers most likely already share our perspective.
This post has been inspired by a lot of reading and a lot of discussions not least with my wonderful colleagues at Staywell Derby CIC., and the incredible people I have supported both there and through CHIME to Thrive, who have survived exceptionally difficult circumstances and who continue to teach me so much. It has also been inspired by my own lived experience of being a healthcare professional and a patient in mental healthcare.
If you were interested in this post, you may be interested in
CRASSH Social Power and Mental Health (2021) https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbXiZFBRqep27o_qD7tvGrw (recordings)
Haslam et al., (2018). The social identity approach to health: the social cure. (1st ed.).
MAD Covid: https://madcovid.wordpress.com
Recovery in the Bin https://recoveryinthebin.org/
Tyler, I., (2021). Stigma: the machine of inequality.