The norm for being well is out of reach for many of us
Jigsaw 2 researcher, Sonji Shah, shares their personal insights from working on the Jigsaw 2 project.
The Jigsaw 2 research into peer support in marginalised communities in the UK has summarised and emphasised what many community groups have been arguing for years – that people are struggling to have their basic needs for wellbeing met.
"The Jigsaw 2 research into peer support in marginalised communities in the UK has summarised and emphasised what many community groups have been arguing for years – that people are struggling to have their basic needs for wellbeing met."
The report highlighted 1) what groups are doing to support their communities, 2) what they are struggling with and 3) what their demands are to funders, larger third sector organisations and statutory services. What became apparent was the paradox that we should celebrate community groups for work they shouldn’t have to do. Being let down by the state and larger organisations was a common thread throughout the conversations. While we touched on tensions with mainstream and statutory services (p.47), it was often implicitly or explicitly mentioned that wider socio-political issues make the groups’ work both necessary and more difficult. Community groups have incredible value in and of themselves, re-imagining what systems of care can look like, yet they are also set up in relation to insufficient state services. Thinking about marginalised community groups that work around mental health and wellbeing in this context can show us the strength of shared long-term visions for another society.
The people I spoke to mentioned many interconnected issues that affected them and the people around them. Racism, transphobia, isolation, loneliness, addiction, unemployment, precarious employment, burnout, lack of affordable housing and inaccessible and further traumatising healthcare are only a few examples of what came up when people spoke freely.
"Racism, transphobia, isolation, loneliness, addiction, unemployment, precarious employment, burnout, lack of affordable housing and inaccessible and further traumatising healthcare are only a few examples of what came up when people spoke freely."
Towards the end of each interview I liked to ask ‘how would you imagine peer support in an ideal world?’ which opened up the particular and pressing issues in wider perspectives. In response to this, interviewees discussed how peer support would still exist, but it might look very different when people aren’t forced to operate from a place of scarcity. If there are fewer factors impacting one’s wellbeing, mutual support could open up ways of relating to one another that are necessary to build systems disconnected from racial capitalism - that is, the perpetuating of wealth inequality through racial divides. We can see the circular logic here: reduced negative impact on wellbeing can lead to systems that reduce negative impacts on wellbeing.
Yet, groups that are formed around people who’ve had fewer chances of gaining access and support from state services, often already work directly or indirectly towards these different systems. They are acutely aware of the impact of systems of oppression on mental health. Indirectly, many groups have ways of sharing skills, spaces, and resources. For example, trying out internal care structures through non-hierarchical leadership teams that check-in with each other, embracing fluidity in organisational growth, and going through processes of accountability. In short, groups actively experiment in other ways of relating where mental health and wellbeing are at the forefront of organising together.
What, if any, role should the state play while groups are finding different ways of working together for improved wellbeing? For example, groups for queer and trans Black people and people of colour have known for long that ‘the state isn’t going to save us’.
"What, if any, role should the state play while groups are finding different ways of working together for improved wellbeing? For example, groups for queer and trans Black people and people of colour have known for long that ‘the state isn’t going to save us’."
That the state as we know it today emerged through historic and ongoing colonial violence and compulsory cis- and heteronormativity, laying out what is considered ‘normal’ and what isn’t. Intimately tied to capitalism, these dynamics need us to ‘function’ in an ableist manner. That means the norm for being well in this society is already out of reach for many of us. The UK’s neoliberal response to the mental health crisis - exacerbated by the pandemic - has been to institutionalise peer support, through programmes like the NHS’ peer support and Social Prescribing, the effectiveness of which has been questioned. All while underfunding health and community services that already exist, and further perpetuating causes for poor mental health, whether through weak social security, gentrification, constant attacks on trans healthcare, threats of deportations and the blatant refusal to acknowledge structural racism within the hostile environment. Bite-sized attempts of inclusion further rest on the exclusions inherent in the prerequisite of citizenship. The language of ‘holistic care’ remains individualised, rather than communal.
While many community groups argued for more and better state support as an immediate demand, the long-term goal to shift power to communities can take on many different shapes. How do we imagine society long-term? What can systems of care look like if we didn’t have to scramble for funds? Often, groups come together over specific goals, which is important. Yet, sharing future visions can serve as a reminder of the power of the ‘margin’, on which after all the centre depends. The margin is where one can scribble notes, experiment, change narratives to decentre what has not been working. Community groups all have different focuses, but bringing together intersecting issues through the lens of mental health and mutual care carries the potential to find new ways of relating to each other in a future divested from systems of violence.