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PsyCommons: The Richness of Everyday Relationships

on Sun, 05/05/2013 - 12:17
Just as psychiatrists have ‘enclosed’ mental illness as their domain of specialist practice, counsellors have done the same for human relations, argues Denis Postle. In this article he explains the concept of the ‘psyCommons’ and calls for the recognition and reclamation of everyday, informal family, friendship and peer relationships as a rich source of emotional support  

There are around 60 million people in this country. We are born, we survive parenting and schooling, we fall in and out of love, we develop enough or share enough savvy about what life offers to get through. Some of us do it well; some of us do it badly. If we are to believe the statistics, around 45 million of us seem to manage it without the need for help from the psychological professions.

We do so thanks, I believe, to the psyCommons. The psyCommons is a name for the universe of rapport – of relationship between people – through which we navigate daily life. It describes the beliefs, the preconceptions and especially the learning from experience that we all bring to bear on our own particular corner of the human condition. 

To name these commonsense capacities ‘the psyCommons’ is to honour the multitudinous occasions of insight, affect and defect that we bring to daily life: in parenting and growing up, caring for the disabled and demented, persisting with the love that brings flourishing and success, supporting neighbours visited by calamity, joining friends and family in celebrations of life thresholds. As my colleague Andy Rogers has described it,1 the psyCommons is a rich resource of ‘ordinary wisdom’ and also, more controversially, ‘shared power’. 

The air we breathe, the radio spectrum, the oceans and the land we occupy – all these are commons, or ‘common pool resources’; they belong to us and we belong to them. The psyCommons is one of these commons. And, in parallel with the history of the enclosures of common land in the UK and elsewhere, the psyCommons too has enclosures. In that insidious way that politics can be invisibly present in daily life, the psyprofessions – psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and counselling – have enclosed the psyCommons.

The enclosures

Enclosures are not a new phenomenon in this country. As David Bollier reminds us:2 ‘By 1876, after 4000 acts of parliament, less than one per cent of the population owned over 98 per cent of the agricultural land in England and Wales.’ If we think for a moment of the psyCommons as a territory, the psyprofessions fence off sectors of this territory, claim ownership of them and, as Marxist economists would say, extract value from them through monopoly rents.  Harsh words, you might think, but hasn’t the professionalisation of counselling and psychotherapy in the last 20 years – the pursuit of privileged status through state endorsement – had the agenda of protecting and strengthening these enclosures of the psyCommons, supposedly in the interests of protecting clients?

  • As I contemplated this vision of the psyCommons, and its psyenclosures came more into focus, two other questions arose for me. Why has so much energy been put into protecting these enclosures? Might it be because, in recent decades, via business, corporate and public service training, the knowledge and authority held in the professional psyenclosures has increasingly escaped – diffused out into the psyCommons? And, second (an even more uncomfortable aspect of these professional enclosures of the psyCommons), where has our accumulated expertise and psyknowledge come from? 

    The answer is that psychological knowledge has arisen from practitioner relationships with ‘clients’, ‘patients’ and ‘service users’. These relationships generate learning; clients benefit from them and the psyprofessions accumulate knowledge and expertise from them.
     
    I find it shocking that, in so far as any of us have been contributing to this accumulation of knowledge and, especially, its professional exclusivity, we have been engaged in a form of mining. I begin to see that the professional enclosures have a hidden agenda: for the professions, the psyCommons is a common resource pool to be mined. 

    This mining of the psyCommons has been going on for at least a century. Raw experience has been extracted from client interactions and has then been refined and distilled into a product or service for which, as mentioned above, we professionals can levy a monopoly rent, or fee. 

    But isn’t this a societal norm? Isn’t such knowledge one of the products of civilisation? Does this mining matter? 

    It matters because, historically, the psyenclosures derive from and reinforce a medical model of human functioning and this, together with the knowledge sequestered in them (more in some than others) has created a tangible social category of ‘mental illness’. ‘Mental illness’ is a product of the professional psychological enclosures.

    Being diagnosed as ‘mentally ill’ isn’t a trivial matter. While it can give access to important resources, it tends to be accompanied by a stigma that can function like a frontier between ‘illness’ and ‘health’. 

    I begin to suspect that this stigma of ‘mental illness’ reflects the boundaries between the professional psyenclosures and the psyCommons: the exclusivity of the psyenclosures creates and reinforces a damaging alienation between people experiencing local, intense, but perhaps temporary difficulties and the rest of the psyCommons population. 

    A rich ecology
    What might this mean for the future of counselling and psychotherapy? 

    As the Occupy movement has pointed out, the sequestering of wealth by one per cent of the population is unacceptable.3 There must be around 200,000 psypractitioners in the UK – counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. That’s a lot less than one per cent of the population. Might not the psyCommons enclosures have their roots in the same historical, social and political antecedents? And be just as inequitable?

    I believe so. And if I am correct, what can we do about it? How might this vision of a psyCommons point psychotherapy and counselling practitioners in a direction that would be more equitable – and that might bring renewal or refreshment?


  • The first thing is to acknowledge the scale of the psyCommons. It is a living, growing multitude – a rich ecology of negotiations, conversations, meetings with family, friends and co-workers, and innumerable affinity groups – the myriad conversations of 60 million people in the UK. My intention here is to promote its flourishing. I want us to turn our attention away from protecting the enclosures and towards sustaining and enhancing the ‘ordinary wisdom’ and ‘shared power’ of the psyCommons.

    This is not to deny the importance of the severe local and current difficulties that many practitioners face due to economic pressures but I think it would be a great pity if, due to the need to maintain and defend the psyenclosures, we were to miss or misconstrue where we are at this point in social and political history. I believe that, due to the advent of the internet, we are living through a Gutenberg moment: a point in time analogous to the period when the church’s monopoly on the production of texts and – it is easy to forget – being able to read them was broken. 

    Grassroots action
    If you Google ‘panic attacks’, you come up with 28 million pages of information; ‘depression’ brings up 364 million pages. Internet resources have recently been invaluable to my own family as we cope with the onset of dementia in a dearly loved relative. As support for intense learning from experience, the internet has been invaluable and has made the input from medical and social services seem archaic and irrelevant. 

    I am not arguing for some kind of technutopia – all technology amputates as well as extends human capacities – but there can be little doubt that the arrival of the world wide web has broken the professional monopolies of expertise distilled from the psyCommons. 

    If, as I have described, the psyCommons takes care of itself; if, as therapists, we were to embrace its primacy, to take account of it as the psychosocial context for our work, we may be approaching a point in time when we will need to re-orient ourselves, to re-examine our professional values.

    This may seem an unduly radical proposal but isn’t the future already here? In a variety of ways the consumption of professional services has long been mutating into the generation of grassroots affinity, support and special needs groups, often in transition between being run by the NHS and social services and finding their own feet in community commitment/development. In researching this article I found more than a thousand UK initiatives in which power is being redistributed, dispersed or shared. To end this article, four examples are described here. 

    Alcoholics Anonymous

    Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its associated 12-step programmes are a strong and widespread expression of the psyCommons. Within walking distance of where I live in west London, there are at least 15 weekly AA meetings. AA meetings are a clear example of how a common concern – a desire to stop drinking – can be successfully pursued through a grassroots, expert-free, co-operative inquiry process. 

    A modest venue is booked, newcomers are welcomed, someone makes tea, first name only introductions are made, and for an hour or more people share their current experiences of the task of staying sober. A few of the aggregated learnings from decades of AA culture may be read out as nourishment and inspiration. Donations are collected; attendance is voluntary; commitment is only to the task of sobriety. Honesty and authenticity are valued but not demanded. Anonymity and confidentiality contribute safety and trust and to holding the meeting securely in the present moment.

     

  • Co-counselling 
    While co-counselling has a long and distinguished history, in my experience its value as a very powerful form of self-directed education has been overshadowed by the shift in the 90s towards job-related training and qualifications. It continues to flourish in the UK, on the continent and in the US and Canada.

    In co-counselling power sharing is explicit and fundamental. A 40-hour training in the theory and practice of co-counselling puts participants on the road to becoming skilled clients. The client and counsellor roles are exchanged in alternate sessions, with the person who for the moment is ‘client’ in charge. The ‘counsellor’ learns to give undivided attention and to refrain from interpretations, advice-giving or sharing personal experiences.

    Co-counselling is based on the view that people are fundamentally intelligent, responsible, able to co-operate, and able to find a balance between their own and other’s interests. It can be regarded as a vehicle for the psyCommons’ principles of shared power and ordinary wisdom. While it takes long-term commitment and courage to use it to the full, its strategies and the model of human functioning around which it is built are comparable in their benefits to any of the other ways of working with the human condition that I have come across.

    Mumsnet 
    In 2000, a disastrous holiday experience led Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton to create Mumsnet (www.mumsnet.com), a website that would make parents’ lives easier by

     providing them with a forum where they could pool collective knowledge, advice and support. Mumsnet describes itself as ‘by parents for parents’. It is now the UK’s busiest social network for parents, generating nearly 50 million page views and seven million visits per month. 

    Mumsnet provides an array of internet forums for conversations, discussions, announcements, controversies and campaigns focused around parenting. All this content is public, open to being read by anyone, and anyone can sign up to join in, for free and anonymously.

    This huge resource is easily accessible but difficult to summarise. I searched for some current concerns: ‘Alzheimer’s’ scored 629 responses; ‘nervous breakdown’ 2,570 responses; ‘teenage troubles’ 8,580 responses. The most popular is ‘Am I being unreasonable…?’ – 265,000 responses.

    I searched for contributors who had said something about Mumsnet. I found comments such as: ‘I have been here for 7.5 years and I bloody love you all too!’; ‘MN has given me countless hours of laughter and gossippy entertainment through terrible morning sickness, PND, and long nights trying to put a newborn to sleep’; ‘…I was speaking to some people when my dd was in year seven (age 11), and still speak to the same people and now she is 17. There are some wonderful people on here.’

    Like AA, Mumsnet sustains safety and trust through anonymity and this has given birth to a rich vernacular language; the countless text conversations display the entrails (often literally!) of women’s lives and engage, with unvarnished frankness and humour, with topics such as flexible working, family-friendliness, the constant juggling and the economic situation. Mumsnet epitomises the shared power and ordinary wisdom that the notion of the psyCommons points to, and demonstrates one of the ways in which it can be deepened and enlivened.

    Strong Roots


    Established in 2006 by Lucy Scurfield, Strong Roots describes itself as a therapeutic garden project (see www.strongroots.org.uk). It is, in essence, a piece of ground in Norwich where people can meet with others for personal development, belonging, companionship and delight in the shared task of cultivation. 

    Strong Roots can also be seen as a co-operative inquiry process focused on the personal development task to ‘let yourself grow’. What counts as personal development is left to the discretion of the participants. It can range from doing nothing, solitary engagement with the earth and shared gardening tasks to group conversations and sharing, with the option of more intensive one-to-one sessions. All, however, are based on the experience of gardening and cultivation – a rich metaphor for care, nourishment and growth.

    Strong Roots’ facilities are modest: a composting toilet, wooden benches, a summerhouse and gardening tools and supplies. The site includes several productive fruit trees and numerous borders, some of which are for flowering plants and attracting wildlife, while others are for growing crops in rotation. 

    Participants tell of their experience: ‘At Strong Roots I’ve been able to find myself and grow in confidence. Since starting I have let go of habits that weren’t great and have been able to go about my life much clearer and stronger’; ‘I find small rooms claustrophobic but I feel more open in an outside space. I find it easier to talk because it is peaceful but not completely silent’; ‘I like coming to Strong Roots because it is quiet, therapeutic and makes me feel good about myself. I also like watching the butterflies and the bees fluttering among the flowers… I feel good about myself when I talk about different issues.’

    Based on the supposition that, in conditions of safety and trust, people will find ways of moving towards flourishing, Strong Roots provides an accessible and flexible vehicle for personal development. Its relevance for the psyCommons proposal is twofold: it is a reminder that an appetite for such engagement can exist independently of crises, and it is a demonstration of the way in which, through power-sharing, the skills and experience of a practitioner can be valued and disbursed.


    After several decades as a broadcast filmmaker, Denis Postle trained as a group facilitator in the 1980s and later taught facilitation at the University of Surrey. During this time he developed a form of intensive one-to-one facilitation that resembles counselling and psychotherapy, and later was a founder participant of the Independent Practitioners Network.


    For further details of the psyCommons proposal and to take part in its evolution, please visit the psyCommons blog at http://psycommons.wordpress.com

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  • References:

    1. Personal communication.
    2. David Bollier. Reclaiming the commons. Boston Review 2002; 27(3). Seehttp://bostonreview.net/BR27.3/bollier.html 
    3. See http://www.occupytogether.org