It’s Mental Health Awareness week, and the theme this year is kindness. Deputy CEO Becky Elton discusses why highlighting kindness and connection is incredibly important in a debate that, for the people we work with, too often centers around access to specialist services.

At Changing Lives, we work with people going through really challenging times. Most people we support are at a point in their lives where they have experienced discrimination, poverty, exploitation and abuse, often manifested in experiences of homelessness, addiction and offending. And so of course your mental wellbeing is going to be affected by this.

People who use our services are often labelled as mentally unwell, because they ‘fail’ to engage, display ‘troubling’ behaviour or refuse to cooperate with one-size-fits-all services. In fact, this emotional distress and these coping and survival mechanisms are normal responses to their circumstances, exacerbated by having to navigate a web of siloed services to find support out of the situation. Mental Health services are often seen as the only way to fix this.

The narrative is that if people could just access mental health services, all would be well, that entry to mental health services is the ‘missing piece’ which will unlock solutions to the ongoing challenges people face.  And this narrative is so strong that seeking diagnosis and statutory mental health services has become an unchallenged focus for organisations and individuals. We are already seeing this narrative reflected in responses to the pandemic – talk of a global mental health crisis and despair at the under investment in mental health services.

I’m not suggesting that we disinvest in mental health services, they are critical for some people. But what I am suggesting is that we see responses to the pandemic, and other traumatic experiences, as normal, human feelings.  We should be helping people to understand feelings of loneliness, distress, shame, anger where healthy boundaries have been crossed, and so on, rather than bestowing clinical disorders on more and more people.

Understanding and normalising trauma-responses as a consequence of what has happened, rather than there being something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with a person, is how we approach distress with people we work with.  Our guiding principle is that we need to begin with what has happened to people in their own lives, taking their narratives seriously and recognising that they are experts in their own circumstances.

This is never more important than during the current pandemic.  We don’t yet really know how Covid19 has impacted people’s lives and how this is changing as time goes on.  We do know that a shift in the way many agencies are treating people during this time, with kindness, asking ‘are you ok’ and ‘how can I help’,  has led some people to tell us they feel more connected than they did before Covid19.  Building on compassion and an enhanced sense of belonging is how we will mitigate the undoubtedly harsh effects on all our mental wellbeing during this time.

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