The Prime Minister recently set out her vision for a new ‘shared society’ alongside her promise to transform mental health care. University of Manchester PHD researcher Susan Oman, questions Theresa May’s commitment to mental health research, how it presents opportunities to understand what a sharing society might be, and how it might support improved wellbeing.
- May is correct in that the ways we participate and share with others can encourage good and bad mental health
- Creating places for people to go and be with others on their own terms is what people expressed mattered most in the National Wellbeing debate and Oman’s own national study
- Only a strategy that links mental health funding and support for social spaces can meet the challenge of a good society and improved wellbeing
- May calls for more research to improve mental health, this should include empirical social science to explore her division between the ‘obvious’ and ‘everyday’ in the social
‘A new philosophy’
Theresa May outlined what she called ‘a new philosophy’ last week, that of the ‘shared society’, by way of a speech to the Charity Commission’s annual meeting. This was printed in full on the government website, with the headline: Theresa May set out her vision for the shared society, the government’s role within it and how to transform mental health support. But how does this apparent tautology (what is a society if it is not shared?) suggest new policies for the good society and improved mental health?
Theresa May’s speech segues from outlining her idea for a ‘shared society’ to how she plans on ‘making sure that mental illness gets the attention it deserves, in funding, research and technology investment’. Yet at no point in the speech did May acknowledge that the way we live our lives with others is often the very thing which accounts for our mental health or sense of wellbeing. Furthermore the choice of when, where, how and if we participate in a particular aspect of the social is fundamental.
May’s presentation of her new vision of society and promise of government investments in mental health would have been less criticised and more coherent as two intrinsically linked ideas. Not two separate concepts. Instead, aspects of sharing appear to devolve responsibility for mental health onto society to look after itself, rather than the ‘active government’ she promises in the speech.
What does participation mean?
The very word ‘participation’ means ‘made to share’, ‘although the sense of force or coercion is no longer present in contemporary uses of participate, participant or “participation”, a sense of action or demand remains implicit in current meanings’ (Bennett et al. 2005, 252). Of course, one of the ironies of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in 2010, was that it also attempted to make us more responsible for each other, coinciding with the aggressive shrinkage of places in which people could be social, such as Sure Start and community centres.
If you want to research and understand how a shared society might be possible, and how to improve wellbeing, where do you find people who are participating?
An Oxford University study published recently found that ‘people who regularly go to their local pub tend to be happier’. However if your local has been turned into flats, as they are no longer commercially viable in an area of aggressive economic growth, then where are the everyday places in society in which you can share? Furthermore, where might we understand what a ‘shared society might be, when such places are disappearing which has happened across the country (all the pubs of Hobbs’ 1980s ethnography, have vanished, for example).
I took my fieldwork on wellbeing to various types and locations of participation across the UK in 2014. I heard people all over the country discuss the dwindling of their community; the removal of the local community centre or library left nowhere for people and their families to congregate with others. This was the case in discussions between inmates at a category B prison in the Midlands, a disabled social housing advocacy group in the North East or members of an exclusive health club in Scotland. In other words, this was the perception across what May divisively separates as ‘obvious’ and ‘everyday’ spectrums of injustice and wellbeing or ‘ill-being’ across society.
May’s idea of a ‘shared society’ is problematic in its articulation, but my research and The University of Manchester jointly-led Understanding Everyday Participation project have both evidenced that there is a clear relationship between participation and wellbeing. In my view May was not clear in linking her versions of these ideas because she does not understand how they are intrinsically related to one another, which is why further research is important.
May’s ‘new vision’ is about ‘supporting free markets as the basis for our prosperity, but stepping in to repair them when they aren’t working as they should’. Her emphasis on the market, rather than improving quality of life, presents a gap in understanding.
Perhaps the loss of local pubs and community centres is the market failure May alludes to: government being active to support places where people socialise. Alternatively, maybe this is what she infers when she talks of those who ‘saw their community changing, but didn’t remember being consulted – or agreeing to – that change’. I think probably not. Her pledge to increase investment in mental health is welcome, but May’s vision does not provide a much needed coherent solution.
A clear link to be made
In speaking to people across the UK and reanalysing the national wellbeing debate survey, I found that allowing people to have places to go and be with people on their own terms is what mattered most to wellbeing (Oman 2015). While wellbeing is more complex than the ‘mental health’ aspects that the Prime Minister referred to, they are inextricably linked, especially when thinking of a ‘good society’. In overlooking the link between these concepts, May’s rhetorical argument failed, but the speech was also left lacking meaning.
The need for research lies beyond quick fixes for mental health injustices. It’s vital we know more about what might make for a shared society and improved wellbeing in the first place. While ongoing research in the social sciences can offer the Prime Minister some assistance in articulating her vision, it is clear that more will be needed if we are to improve all aspects of healthcare and social life to make for a better society.