The Helpful Social

Helpful spaces can facilitate the advantages of socialising with others in a group, of gaining recognition, often in a space characterised by a lack of judgement and respect from others.19 Sometimes they can offer alternative social worlds where people can feel that they belong to a group and where different criteria of worth may be applied making possible positive identities and status.46 People can experience relationships of mutual support either formally or informally within these settings where loss, guilt, isolation, social marginalisation and stigmatisation can be ameliorated by the psychological sense of community, emotional support, role models, practical information, ideas on coping, opportunity to help others and mutually supportive relationships.47 Here discourses of disability, victimhood, powerlessness and dependence can, for some, become recognition, belonging and a sense of control.47 In such spaces people can learn new ways to perceive and interact with the environment, acquire new skills, experience the reawakening of hope after despair, and no longer see themselves primarily as persons with psychiatric disorders.48 For some, helpfulness can take the form of a move from a personal to a shared social identity when the context itself shifts to being structured in terms of intergroup relations rather than the interpersonal relations between a client and therapist.

Helpful spaces can furnish forms of collective resilience—a term used to describe communities’ coping processes—that is, the relational bonds and networks that hold communities together and provide support and protection, facilitating refuge in times of extreme stress.49-51

And then there are the practical impacts that can be provided by some settings where advice, advocacy, information and support can help people to address key community and personal difficulties, like poor housing, unemployment, benefits issues and opportunities for volunteering.52 Volunteers have higher personal and neighbourhood well-being, social integration and connectedness,53-55 allowing people to embed their lives in a given social context. Some volunteers experience ‘ways of being’ in the community that may have been disrupted or lost56 and where people come to see the value of their own participation and contribution through the eyes of others.57

Invaluable care work is being carried out in informal social, recreational and community settings where an array of circumstances, experiences, relationships and events provide beneficent encounters. Informal caring can take many guises in many settings.58 Work in three neighbourhoods in Glasgow shows that the nature of informal care and helping is often blurred and can constitute, sometimes through small acts of kindness and practical help, a deep emotional significance that can underpin subsequent emotional disclosure and help to create a sense of connection between people. Moreover, a shared sense of identity can provide a strong basis for mutual support.

This is something that is often manifestly missing in the relationships between psy practitioners and clients.59 ‘Mental illness’ often creates a sense of being different and often of being alone. Clinical processes can emphasise, highlight and reinforce this. Everyday experiences can lead to greater satisfaction than those mobilised by specialists, a reason why some suggest that clinicians need the modesty to remember that many people find non-clinical ways to manage distress.60 Indeed one of the strongest and most effective ways that mental health services can be involved is to strengthen community-focused ways of supporting the everyday solutions to the difficulties people experience.60,61

Central to journeys from distress are connectedness, finding space to rebuild positive identities and status, often within a context of stigma and discrimination. They include ways of finding hope and meaning, and a purpose in life and being able to rebuild a life that feels worth- while.62 For many, this can include facilitating the pragmatics of those in distress—a focus on debt, housing, food and benefits. For some, it may be the provision of space where people can rediscover competence and connectedness, and reframe identities. For others, it might be to have a place of safety and refuge, and for some, the desire to explore trajectories through volunteering.

The infinite variety of have-to’s thrown at people rendered mental health clients before they reach an elusive idea of normality ignores the very real need for people to participate in the natural rhythms of community life.57 People’s lives can change hugely simply by having other people to spend time with and spaces where they can give support and help as well as simply receive it from someone paid to do so.57 Moreover, for many who have had repeated experiences of labelling, coupled with negative and hopeless encounters with mental health services, the labelling becomes incorporated into their identity.63 So finding contexts with a sense of belonging, commonality with others, and agency can start to unravel some of these ingrained assumptions of personal deficit—spaces where people are chosen, included, deemed worthy of others’ attention not due to deficits and problems but due to capacities, talents and status as deserving contributing people.63 Informal social settings and spaces appear to be key in enabling people to redefine themselves beyond illness and provide opportunities to construct new meanings for both themselves and their worlds. Mezzina63 suggests that goals like social inclusion and community integration can only be provided by communities themselves rather than through the technical procedures of institutions that situate themselves on the periphery of these communities.

Helpful settings can take a varied and wide form, but what they often have in common tends to be a sense of safe space, companionship, a lack of judgement and a capacity to define oneself beyond one’s distress. Holmes31 suggests that settings like arts centres, libraries, river paths, sports fields, education centres and others can allow for a variegated and multiple notion of ‘recoveries’ where there are as many recoveries as people. Where isolated people make friends, receive support,64 go for a walk, experience the countryside companionship and solidarity or share information, meeting up with like-minded people and sharing experiences. Where they might be listened to and experience well-being in ways that cannot be measured by the traditional metrics of modern well-being and that, crucially, very rarely need a psy professional on hand.31 Helpful spaces can improve well-being but cannot easily be verified through randomised control trials (RCTs), and the clinician’s preferred methodology,65 and so they tend to flounder as abstract phenomena on the periphery of statutory approaches to distress. RCTs cannot capture the complexity of spaces where the rational construction of life orientations, so central to the technologies of conventional therapy, is supplanted by multifarious settings where passive and indirect life orientations emerge in stark contrast to the transcendence of never-ending rational setting of goals.66 The case studies in this book go some way towards articulating the complexity of some of these spaces, and just how helpful they can be.

The path that distress takes is far from inevitable or determined purely by individualised, static ‘symptoms’. Rather it unfolds as part of a complex interplay between personal experience, space, embodied movement, as well as relations with others and the material world. However, to present social spaces as an unbridled panacea for all distress would be both nai've and wrong, with public space being often cited as particularly problematic for some. For some the more fluid, dynamic, active nature of being out in the world, doing things, seems to promote a more powerless position in relation to their distress. However, our argument in this chapter is not for the ameliorating effects of all public relational spaces for all. Rather spaces of helpfulness can be fundamental to well-being because for many people, it is through social contexts that they can start to reconstruct their sense of self, status and agency in the world. It is human encounters, so often comfortable, banal and removed from the formal practices of care, that are so important.

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