By Pat McArdle, CEO of Mayday Trust
The instant that you say ‘a woman with a drug problem’, a ‘man with a mental health problem’ you have failed. You have become part of a systemic problem; you are on a very slippery slope to becoming a problem fixer and are embarking on a journey where you remove power, control, and choice from another human being. The end result for the person is seldom positive, and for a generation, it has created mass dependency upon ‘state fixing’.
The mass expectation is that everything from noisy neighbours, exam stress, misbehaving kids, sadness, unhappiness, everything that we experience as negative in our life, must either be solved by a service, state intervention, or a drug. If you are unwilling to go down this path you are choosing not to help yourself and must live with the consequences.
The biggest disability in our society is the removal of agency, power, choice, and responsibility from people and from communities. In Dublin mothers on an estate said no to drug gangs and services played only a small support role. This worked. In a town in the North East of England people living in estates looked to the police, social services, and schools to save their children. Sadly the evidence shows that services, with their fixing approaches, restricted interventions, rigid timelines, and their lack of understanding of the real problems, will never be as successful as a community response; communities with decent housing, secure employment opportunities, and happy residents.
Stopping young people carrying knives misses the point; how do we stop young people from being afraid?
Quick fixes are rarely effective. What we need are investments directly into people and healthy environments, which facilitate and nurture positive connections and opportunities for people to contribute. This is what it will take in order to stop young people from becoming disenfranchised, vulnerable to criminality and drugs. Young people need to feel they belong and have purpose and connections that are strong and positive in their lives. Connection means we have people to go to during the tough times and purpose gives us the confidence to cope. We become less dependent on ‘fixing’ and more internally and externally able to deal with life, and importantly to understand the wider context and barriers we face.
But if we can individualise and quantify the problem, we can target resources to where they are most needed, right? Wrong. A woman may have a drug problem because of personal trauma caused by living in poverty, because of a lack of opportunity to have a real purpose, or as a result of surviving homelessness. A multitude of possible reasons – so to start with a drug intervention may work as a temporary sticking plaster for some, but won’t have a long term effect and misses the point. How can solving an individual’s drug problem-solve their poverty or give them hope or motivation that life could be different? The only thing you have done in stopping their drug use is to take away their survival strategy, coping mechanism, only pleasure or release.
Money and resources are being channelled into industrial-sized charities, services and mental health provision to cure the ills of individuals, whilst the problem today is more often structural.
Systems have been established to focus on the individuals’ complex needs with mindsets firmly on finding ever-growing ways to ‘fix’ these multiple needs. The most illustrative, crazy example I read recently was a council who hired Pastors to help people who were being evicted from their homes with ‘their stress’, as the council was selling the land off to developers. People didn’t need the church or help with stress, they needed a good lawyer and a right to remain in their home and community. But while this is an extreme example it demonstrates how our focus is not on the real problem, which is a broken system, but on the symptoms experienced by individuals which appear easier and less costly to fix.
We have evolved cultures and systems that are only designed to solve problems and categories of misery. As a result, people have internalised feelings of blame, hopelessness, and weakness through the continual and persistent failure of ‘fixing’ or failure to offer real-world explanations and solutions for their experiences.
Only when we say to people: it’s perfectly understandable that you will feel anxious, you are living in a scary hostel; everyone makes mistakes and so that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to your own flat; I would react in the same way if I was told at 45 years old to be in bed by 10 pm; only when we actually walk alongside people, deeply listening and seeing life through their eyes; only then will we learn that it is not their failure, but a system failure. There is no way to fix this broken system, instead, we must embark on the challenge of building a new one.