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.
I’ve been a clinician in mental health for many (many) years I have heard tales of woe and distress. They have often been so devastating, and at the same time, inspirational as one hears about the efforts people make to overcome the most extreme situations. I have always felt a sense of privilege at being allowed into these stories and as a researcher this privilege feels somehow even more intense.
Managing our mental health is something we all do and for many of us it is a fairly straightforward process, but a significant number of us are likely to find it rather more complex, sometimes needing support from our GP or mental health services. As part of our research in CLAHRC Wessex we’re looking at how people use their social networks to improve and manage their mental health.
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