Social Approaches to Distress: From Enclosures to Fluid Spaces

One day, while I was being light heartedly told by a centre user that I would eventually follow the ‘monkey with a typewriter in a room’ scenario and fluke a decent cup of tea, I realised that there was a woman sat in the corner. I noticed her because she looked out of place. I asked who she was and I was told that she was a worker from the local mental health charity, Mind, who did afternoon mental health sessions where people could informally pop over and chat to her. I had already been told that the majority of people using the centre were current or recent mental health service users. However, very few people seemed to be going over to her corner. I remember being a little surprised by this at the time. She certainly seemed like a pretty approachable and friendly person.

The quality of my tea might have improved over time had I spent less time staring at what was happening in the room and more on the tea itself. Eventually I was removed from tea bar altogether. They were polite and said that, since they found out I was an academic, they had decided my volunteering could be put to better use helping them with their research evaluations. But we all knew deep down that it was due © The Author(s) 2017

C. Walker et al., Building a New Community Psychology of Mental Health, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-36099-1_3

to the quality of the tea. Nonetheless what I had learned, and continued to learn, through evaluations with the organisation and through later becoming a trustee, was that the Mind worker eventually stopped coming. And yet she had been the only person with mental health training in a building where the majority of people identified as currently or recently experiencing mental health difficulties.

What subsequently became obvious through various conversations and pieces of research was that most people who used the centre said they had found it beneficial to their mental wellbeing. A good number said the activities they were involved in had been fundamental to what they referred to as their recovery. And this had happened despite the loss of their only trained mental health professional. Unless I was misunderstanding what was happening in the centre, this appeared to be an informal setting where valuable and sometimes invaluable mental health work routinely occurred through activities, technologies and ‘things’ that most would consider relatively banal and unspecialised. And it was this experience of making bad tea and watching an informal therapeutic landscape unfold in practice that ultimately led to the case studies in this book.

All three authors of this book have had such experiences in their personal lives, as supporters of loved ones with mental health issues, as volunteers and as researchers in diverse settings. And even for Angie, in that part of her life where she worked as a mental health practitioner in a child and adolescent mental health service, informal spaces, community groups and the actions of people who weren’t mental health professionals repeatedly revealed themselves to be fundamentally important to people’s recovery. Those experiences were something of an impetus for the community development research she has done over the years on resilience-based approaches to mental health which is gaining some ground in the realm of children’s mental health.1,2,3 And yet the dominant narratives, and most of the money, as we saw in the previous chapter, continue to be tied up with the healing powers of medics, psychologists and various professional therapists. And even at best, community-based approaches are seen as referral routes or sites of prescription by medics and psy professionals.

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