The power of we, revisited…

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Saw a piece of research today into research into mortality rates-
Facilitating patient use of naturally occurring social relations and community-based interventions may be more successful than providing social support through hired personnel.
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The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity.)
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The overall effect remained consistent across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, follow up period, and cause of death, suggesting that the association between social relationships and mortality may be general.

This is rather startling… the strength of our social network will have more positive effect on our health than all the other lifestyle things we are hit with repeatedly- the weight loss industry, stopping smoking, vegetable eating etc.

(Perhaps we should all get together to share a good smoke and to eat large amounts of chocolate!)

It was part of a presentation done at this conference that I almost went to-

So living in loving community is good for you- in every physical sense imaginable.

It is the way we humans were made.

And it is the best that we can become.

Making recovery real…

To Oban today to a Scottish Recovery Network conference on the promotion of ‘recovery’ as a concept and driver for mental health services, and more importantly, for those of us who experience mental ill health.

It snowed, and so we were a bit worried about the drive, but in the end Audrey, Victoria and I got there and back with no trouble.

The challenge and critique brought to services by the change of thinking and shifts in power required to move towards a recovery based system (rather than an illness based system) has been the stuff of my working life for a while now. I have found that it has had the capacity to reignite my passion for the work that I do.

I have spoken about recovery before- here and here, but for those who have not come across the concept before, here is the definition from the SRN website-

“Recovery is being able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by each person, in the presence or absence of symptoms. It is about having control over and input into your own life. Each individual’s recovery, like his or her experience of the mental health problems or illness, is a unique and deeply personal process.”

It is about trying to stop expecting people to fit into hierarchical burearocratic structures, but rather shifting power from the institution to the individual. It is about creating opportunities for people to rediscover hope, and to re imagine what a fuller life might look like.

You could say that it is about the redemption business- the Jesus business. And where he is, I want to be near.

But lest you think that I am doing that familiar paid helper thing, and dividing the world into us (the professionals) and you (the recipients of our expertise) then let me confess that I too am in a process of recovery.

Or should I say sometimes I am.

Because we were asked today to consider what might contribute to our own ‘wellness’, and people gave the usual answers- love, relationships, long walks in the country, meaningful activity, meditation and rich ruby wine… But I was led once again to reflect on my own mercurial sense of wellbeing, and how fragile it was at times.

Because sometimes it seems as though I am merely a victim to unfolding circumstance. Things happen, and I have little control over them, nor my emotional reaction to them. Of course, this is not true. There are lots of things I do, or avoid doing that make me who I am.

It is perhaps more like one of those slow unfolding accidents, that give you chance to react and minimise the inevitable impact- which is nonetheless still painful and shocking.

Of course there is such blessing in this journey of mine too- and I am so grateful that I do not walk alone.

So by way of celebrating these continuing outbreaks of redemption, almost in spite of my own ability to miss them- I offer you this lovely poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins-

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The church and social economy…

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As part of my job, I am currently leading one of the groups responsible for planning a redesign of mental health services. I am enjoying it so far- I like the creative process of developing new things.

The remit of my group is to look at how we develop mental health services in primary care and also to think about how services might help to prevent mental health problems- and contribute to the mental wellbeing of our society.

It is a huge subject, that requires connections across many parts of society- statutory services, housing providers, voluntary bodies, social networks etc etc. It does not take long to realised that mental wellbeing and mental health are very different issues. It is possible to have a severe mental illness, and yet still have good mental wellbeing, but poor mental wellbeing can easily lead to mental ill health. In fact, good health of any sort is simply not possible without goon mental wellbeing.

It is a subject close to my heart, as it resonates deeply with my faith.

I believe that the followers of Jesus are to be a source of blessing for our communities. Too often, we get into pointless condemnation or narrow defensiveness- the foolish idea that we need to ‘defend the faith’ against rising secularism and Godless sinfulness. But the call of Jesus is to show a better way- a way of love and service that transforms lives and communities, and wherever we see the flowering of these good things in society, then we are to savour them with salt, and illuminate them with light.

Because the alternative is grim.

Here is a quote from one of the documents that I have been re-reading for my group-

Across Scotland, the UK and European Union, stress, anxiety, depression,hopelessness, isolation, fear, insecurity and distrust are increasing. We witness daily the effect of this on the lives of individuals, families and whole communities.

Many people in Scotland find themselves isolated and vulnerable due to their mental health status, poverty, class, ethnicity, age, disability, gender, sexuality, homelessness and many other forms of exclusion. The resulting lowself esteem and feelings of being undervalued have serious effects for them
as individuals, for their families, their colleagues, the wider community andScotland.

The consequences of cycles of social exclusion for how people think and feel are complex:

Some people faced with chronic stress and disadvantage may retreat and stop participating. Their social networks reduce, their vulnerability increases, their incomes and security reduce and many spiral into cycles of anxiety, depression and other more severe mental health problems. This not only impacts on them as individuals but can damage relationships between family members, partners, parents,
children and siblings with a chain of negative results-

  • changes in life situations – having babies, getting old, losing a job, becoming disabled, getting ill or family separation – can result in people becoming isolated, vulnerable and excluded
  • others may get resentful and angry and act on these feelings in their personal and community relationships, through aggressive behaviour, violence, abuse, theft or vandalism
  • hopelessness and low expectations may mean some people do things which might be considered to be ‘risky’

Taken together, such experiences are damaging to wellbeing. People, families, groups and communities of interest do not feel involved, connected,safe, secure, caring, creative or active. These types of experiences also affect how communities function: communities can come to feel more and more
vulnerable and close ranks, displaying exclusive attitudes and behaviour; or become divided and disarmed by fear of ‘the other’; or find it hard to believe that it is possible to break the cycle and create a different future.

From the ‘Small change, big impact’ conference report, 2006.

It is possible to get all doom and gloomy when looking at this picture. The question is what can we do about this? How can we break the negative cycles that are at work on individuals and groups? How do we break down isolation and low confidence and self esteem? How do we do this in a way that supports, encourages and empowers, rather than just further labels people as responsible for their own failures?

The report digs into some community projects that have begun to do this, and identified some of the characteristics that appeared significant-

Even though the projects developed independently they articulated a shared sense of purpose: to bring about connectedness

  • With self – A sense of self and worth internally for the individual,
  • With others – A sense of belonging and worth in relation to family, communities of interest and the community
  • With the bigger picture – Creative engagement between individuals,the family, diverse communities of interest and the community that opens doors for a caring and creative society to flourish
  • Between communities of interest and individuals,
  • Spatially – Knowing it is ‘my place, I belong here’ so that people feel safe, involved and want to invest
  • Institutionally – We delivery agents participate too, it effects us also.

It is OUR agenda, our community, our Scotland. We are community too. We are participants with a specific role to facilitate processes that encourage and enhance social development across services to make it easier to respond effectively and holistically to a community as it develops and grows.

The report goes on to speak of the importance of the arts in this process too…

Does this sound familiar? That list of characteristics of groups that build communality, health and satisfaction- does it not sound like what CHURCH is supposed to be? Is it not possible that this is the role that church USED to fill within society?

No longer however. Perhaps we squandered the opportunity, or perhaps the world left us behind. But the challenge to us all- perhaps particularly those of us in church, is how we might again be a blessing to our communities- not so that they might fill our pews again (at least not as an end in itself,) but rather so that we might be change-agents of the Kingdom of God.

This perhaps requires a different set of skills traditionally valued by church- networking, hospitality, reconciliation, listening, neighbourlyness- providing opportunities for real, deep connections between people.

Perhaps it also demands of us that we become JOINERS with others, rather than just INVITERS to our own safe places.

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