A couple of weeks ago I organized a seminar (my first!) at Queen Mary, University of London, in its beautiful Octagon Room, about community philosophy, bringing together 20 or so practitioners in the field, who had a combined experience of over three centuries in grassroots philosophy. Here are some videos from the seminar:
There’s a new spirit of self-help and mutual improvement blowing through public health policy. I first felt its breeze in Scotland’s national mental health strategy, which was published in August, and which made much of its ‘person-centred approach’ to mental health in Scotland. One of the main themes of the strategy is “embedding more peer-to-peer work and support”, for example via a network called the Scottish Recovery Network, which trains people who’ve recovered from mental illness so they can help other people recover. Seems a good idea. Scotland’s strategy also emphasised the role of self-help in mental health services:
NHS 24 has developed, piloted and now delivers the Living Life Guided Self Help Service, under which self-help coaches guide individuals over the phone through a series of self-help workbooks to help them understand some of the reasons why they are feeling low, depressed or anxious. NHS Health Scotland managed the Steps for Stress resources which contain practical ways for people to start to deal with stress.
A similar approach is evident in the Welsh government’s Together For Mental Health strategy, published this month, which includes self-help provisions like the Book Prescription Service (bibliotherapy as national policy!). And the self-help / mutual aid spirit is front-and-centre in a new report from the Centre for Mental Health, called Implementing Recovery through Organisational Change. The report looks at how the Coalition government’s healthcare reform is giving a lot more power to Health and Well-Being Boards (HWBs) at the local government level, and how HWBs are increasingly looking to work with user-led community organisations:
This might include peer support groups, advocacy, tenancy support, adult education and training opportunities, sources of information and advice, eg on welfare rights or employment, as well as resources that support overall wellbeing and quality of life…From walking groups to literacy and numeracy classes, from learning English to managing debt, finding out about sources of low cost credit, tenancy maintenance, cookery classes and gardening projects, access to natural spaces and places to ‘stop and chat’…
No doubt for some of you the words ‘self-help’ and ‘mutual aid’ set off alarm bells, because it sounds like an excuse for slashing public service budgets, rolling back the barriers of the state and returning to the 19th century, when we didn’t have an NHS and if poor people needed support they had to sing for their supper at the Salvation Army. These are valid concerns. According to a Young Minds survey, 52% of councils said they planned to reduce their budget for children’s mental health services next year, sometimes by up to 30%. David Clark, the pioneer of Improved Access for Psychotherapies, the government’s flagship therapy policy, warned recently that budgets for IAPT were also being cut, sometimes by 30%. Even the best self-help book is not a replacement for trained counselors.
Some of you may also think that ‘self-help and mutual aid’ smacks of a neo-liberal approach – pull yourself together and get on with it, and don’t rely on the state to help you. The Norman Tebbit approach to personal growth. A lot of self-help can certainly be a bit like that. But self-help / mutual aid doesn’t have to be neo-liberal, individualist or laissez faire capitalist. The Centre for Mental Health report says that the recovery approach “means an emphasis not only on personal development, but also on the need for collective support and reciprocity to allow people to build decent lives and for their communities to flourish.”
The report highlights the work of a group called the Personalisation Forum Group, a ‘user-led organisation’ in Doncaster, which helps people with mental health issues to help each other, and also work collectively to represent themselves and campaign for better mental health services and personalised mental health budgets in their local community. Sounds awesome – though, to be a tiny bit cynical, how ‘user-led’ is the PFG really? It was set up by a social worker, Kelly Hicks, and seems to be very politically tuned-in and publicity savvy for a new organisation supposedly run by people with mental health problems. It’s already won multiple awards (‘social worker of the year’ for Kelly!), has secured Ed Miliband’s support, and set its sights on the total reform of the national mental health system to make it more user-based and personalised. I’m not sure that people with mental health issues would call their self-run support group the ‘Personalisation Forum Group’? That sounds like academic policy-wonk speak. And I notice Kelly is also CEO of a company called Personalisation Plus, offering councils advice on personalised mental health budgets. So who is the PFG serving? Its users or the mental health professionals who set it up and promote it? (Perhaps the answer is both).
Anyway, I’m a firm believer in mutual aid, ever since I was helped to overcome social anxiety by a support group over a decade ago. I love the tradition of mutual aid – the Quakers, Samuel Smiles, the coop movement, Benjamin Franklin’s Junto, Peter Kropotkin, Alcoholics Anonymous, tenant boards. And I see the potential for grassroots philosophy clubs to play a role in local mental health policy, by working with Health and Well-Being Boards, with NHS well-being centres, with community colleges, to expand the provision of practical philosophy for ordinary people.
But there would be real risks to this engagement of grassroots philosophy clubs with local or national mental health policy, as my fellow community organizers warned me, at a recent seminar. There’s the risk of being co-opted into political goals, being forced to meet bureaucratic box-ticked well-being targets. There’s the risk of a confusion of public and private interests, and of financial mismanagement – look at the example of A4E, the welfare-to-work organisation currently being investigated for massive fraud (and check out the incredibly bad interview its CEO, Emma Harrison, gave on Channel 4 this week).There’s the risk that community organisations become PR vehicles for personal and professional self-aggrandizement and publicity rather than genuine mutual improvement. Perhaps the greatest risk is that social enterprises or charities get more focused on winning funding than on helping people. They can end up more worried about sustaining their own existence rather than supporting their users. And political bureaucracy can be deadening to the community spirit: I look at the alphabet soup of formal adult education – NIACE and the BIS supporting the WEA through SDIs or whatever – and think, that’s all just dead bureaucrac-ese and nothing to do with real, intimate human relations.
Those are the risks that community organisations have to consider before getting involved with local or national government – and I know many informal philosophy groups want to steer well clear of politics. Then again, for all the achievements of community philosophy, it could still be a lot bigger than it is. We’re still in a country where most people don’t see any relevance or usefulness in philosophy. If you want to change that, as many of us do, then is working through public policy a necessary evil?
Here’s a Radio 4 obituary of Paul Kurtz, philosopher and founder of the modern Skeptic movement (it’s 14 minutes into the show). I was invited onto the show as an interviewee, and they also interviewed James ‘the Amazing’ Randi. I talk about how, in his last years, Kurtz fell out with the institutions he founded – particularly the Center for Inquiry – because he thought they had become too ‘new Atheist’ and aggressive in their ridiculing of religion. So they kicked him off the board!
That story reminded me of what happened to Albert Ellis, the pioneer of cognitive therapy, who was also kicked off the board of the Albert Ellis Institute in the last years of his life. The AEI then employed someone called Jeffrey Bernstein to be their CEO. This week, Bernstein was convicted of grand larceny for stealing millions from the AEI. Good going AEI. Top recruitment there.
Derren Brown’s new show, Apocalypse, involved him purportedly hypnotising someone into believing civilisation has collapsed and the survivors have turned into zombies. Brown has said the show is inspired by his reading of the Stoics, and their exercise of imagining the worst to appreciate what you have (I don’t think Seneca had zombies in mind!) Was the show an elaborate hoax? People on the net are suggesting the experiment subject – supposedly a 21-year-old ne’er-do-well – is actually an aspiring actor, and my friend the hypnotherapist Donald Robertson says he doesn’t think Brown would have got a license to hypnotise someone for entertainment if there was a risk of distress. Wouldn’t be the first time Brown has hoaxed the public – the Stoics would be shocked!
Here’s Sir Isaiah Berlin on Desert Island Discs, which includes a very funny story of how Churchill mistakenly invited Irving Berlin, the song-writer, for dinner at Number 10 during WWII, when Isaiah Berlin was a diplomat in Washington. ‘Do you think Roosevelt will win the next election?’ Churchill asked Irving. ‘Well, I voted for him last time and might vote for him next time’ Irving replied, much to Churchill’s confusion.
If you’re in London, there’s a great two weeks of events starting today on the 365th anniversary of the Putney Debates – a wonderful moment in grassroots radical philosophy during the Civil War. Details here.
And if you’re in Holland, I’ll be there all of next week, doing talks and workshops, including one on Monday evening on Stoicism. Email or tweet me for further details.
Finally, some publishing stuff. News emerged that Penguin may be sold to Random House. The new company is provisionally called Penguin House, with the new logo unveiled this week (on the right), although ‘Random Penguin’ is still garnering votes. Meanwhile Penguin’s hottest signing, Pippa Middleton, failed to sparkle at the launch for her book on party-organising. The event was held with some 6-year-olds, who it was hoped would not ask difficult questions. Unfortunately one of them, after being told by Pippa she would love pink princesses when she was older, declared ‘I hate princesses…I like vampires!’ Well, you know, they’re kind of the same thing…