When people talk about managing mental health the most frequent thing to do is to recourse to self help or looking to services to help. There is less recognition of the power of social networks for help and support based on connections and reciprocity around us.
Separating out the individual from their need for other people and ability to mobilise resources in order to manage effectively, has meant that the notion of a personal community of support (the array of personal ties with which people are located and embedded) has not tended to be included in understanding or responding to mental health need.
Now there’s a nascent social movement about networks.
It’s common for academics to be found popping up at conferences and even music festivals these days, telling people what they have been finding out in an effort to spread the word and get the message heard. This was just the activity we were engaged in and one of the benefits for us as academics is that we also get to hear about others work and this gives us ideas.
The MWF takes place over 3 days in London . The first day takes place in the Houses of Parliament where Baroness Hollins hosts panel discussions on aspects of mental well-being and the next two days take place predominantly in City Lit, a further education college that serves London. Throughout these two days there is a plethora of wonderful sessions that can be accessed, free of charge, by those registered for the event. Attendees include those with lived experience of mental distress, both themselves and as carers; interested members of the public; policy makers; commissioners and professionals from every group with a role in helping those in mental distress.
It really is the most eclectic, informative and creative space to find yourself in. A place where many, sometimes opposing, worlds collide.
Our talk was full, so we had a great audience of interested people who asked questions all the way along and shared their own experiences of being pet owners. What stood out particularly, and resonated with the findings from our study, was the way in which pets give unconditional love which is consistently there regardless of how we are feeling.
Pets are trusted more than people many said and seem to have an intuitive understanding of their owners, knowing just when to demand to go out or to curl up for a cuddle.
For me most important was the knowledge, which we gained from the study, that for our cohort none of the participants had their pets considered as important network members as part of their care and yet all that had pets stated that they were essential.
The room completely agreed with this and the professionals in the room were clear that pets will be considered more seriously in future, in fact two of the attendees stated that they were relieved to have some research evidence to back up something they had wanted to attend to for a while but had felt reluctant to do so in case they were laughed at.
More and more of us are looking online for information to support our health (see Chris Allen’s work on support in Online Communities). In my research, I have found that the ability to get hold of that information and support, which is personal to you, can make a huge difference to how well you are.
I’m focusing on insulin pumps, which are an alternative means to deliver insulin to people with diabetes – compared to the more traditional multiple daily injections.
Insulin pumps have been developed to help people with Type 1 diabetes manage the condition better; both in terms of their quality of life and by more closely resembling a fully-functioning pancreas.
However, introducing a new health technology to an already difficult to manage condition is not necessarily simple, or easy.
The everyday management of a long-term condition is almost never done by individuals in isolation from others. The networks of relationships around people may include family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, health professionals and even pets all of who play an important role in the management of long-term conditions. This is through, for example, their knowledge, support, help with accessing services, resources and valued activities.
In 2015 I was fortunate enough to be awarded some funding from Solent NHS Trust to explore the networks of people with long term mental health issues. This project looked at how people manage their networks day-to-day and when they are in crisis, looking to see what the differences were between networks and how people negotiate the relationships within them. All the participants were recruited from community groups and many of the participants were students of a local Recovery College*.
Could this statement be the one that encapsulates the perception that mental health services are frequently unable to help people with mental health issues?
A research participant in a study I’m conducting into support networks of people with long term mental health problems outlined what she saw as some of the problems with her encounters with health professionals in the mental health system.
Professor Anne Rogers explains how weaker social ties play a role in helping people manage a long term illness.
With ever more attention on the NHS and how many nurses and doctors are needed to give people the best care, one part of the health equation is going unnoticed – What attention is being paid to the role of the patient and their extended network of relationships? In early 70s West Coast America a piece of research by Anselm Strauss and colleagues examined a set of questions on ‘self-care’.
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