You’re wrong. We’re right.


Like it or not we are all designed to think in stark opposites. Black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, this or that. Humans are like other animals. Making an instant judgment is a basic survival method. Introduce your cat to the new puppy, and likely as not the cat will either snarl and hiss, or run and hide. The fight or flight system.

We often make instant judgments that turn out to be bad for us. When you’re very angry and about to launch into your perceived enemy it makes good sense to pause, count to ten and try to involve the more rational part of the brain. But so often it’s hard to take a detached view of things and think ‘rationally’ when we feel intensely that we are right about things. Our body will be pouring hormones out, mainly adrenaline which gives us the power to fight or run to deal with danger.

We talk about feeling strongly about something. Look at how many fights and arguments arise because opponents have starkly different views. Reducing the world to simple viewpoints gives us a feeling of rightness. They’re bad, we’re good. Simple viewpoints make us put things and people into ‘boxes’. All drug addicts are scum. Mental illness only happens to weak people. If gamblers get into big debt that’s their fault. Disruptive school pupils should be severely punished. How simple and understandable the world is if we live with simple stereotypes! And if many others share our views, well, that proves we’re right!

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Albert Einstein

Fine words. Nice sounding quotes about simplicity make achieving it seem so simple! For most of us life is never that simple. Our work is filled with irritations, frustration, anger, weariness, uncertainty, not to mention the pain when somebody attacks and sneers at it. But most of us are lucky enough to live reasonably content lives, and many manage to build in good qualiy (and vital) leisure time and ways to cope with the emotional stresses we all face. We can pause to reflect on how our words and behaviour affect others.

Not everyone is so lucky. Many are facing tremendous pains that most of us can only imagine feebly if we imagine them at all. Having been treated for mild depression, for instance, gives you some insights but it doesn’t give you special insight into the horrors faced by those with intense, prolonged and intractable depression. Somebody who has suffered financial difficulties because of gambling should receive support, but they may be in a different place from those whose lives are totally ruined, those suffering from severe co-occurring mental illnesses, those in their last moments before suicide.

In the jargon of the ‘experts’,  many of our fellow citizens live with ‘multiple and complex needs’. Poverty, homelessness or poor housing, mental and physical illness, poor education, diability, abuse, traumas, imprisonment, threatening environments, prejudice are all part of what may present simply as ‘addiction’. But even without these obstacles, each individual has their own set of unique backgrounds. We can never assume, for instance, that a professional such as a doctor is somehow protected from addiction or any mental illness. In fact the Sick Doctors Trust estimates that one in twelve doctors have suffered with addiction.

Life – your life, my life – is messy, not simple. Those who make policy and evolve strategies in health, social care, education, politics are experienced in delivering neat reports, flowcharts, research papers, theories, diagrams, models, boxes. But not one of us is the shape of a box. Although a great deal of the policy and strategy work emphasises ‘holistic’ or ‘whole person’ support for an individual taking into full account their environments and any ‘multiple and complex needs’, this can become a worn platitude.

What is ultimately crucial, as well as deliveringt things like ‘treatment plans’ , ‘pathways’, ‘multiple agency integration’, is the quality of relationship that frontline workers can grow. It is simply not good enough to write people off because ‘they don’t really want to get well’ or ‘they don’t really want to recover from addiction’. It is cruel to shift a person from service to service – for instance to send a person to ‘addiction services’ before you deal with their depression or anxiety as mental health issues, as if addiction were not one of the most devastating and pevasive mental illnesses in society. Far beyond all the simple systems and processes, five year strategies and so forth, beyond the glowing evaluation reports, it’s worth remembering that the compassion and skills of one person can turn another’s life around. And that person need not be a qualified worker in the health and social care infrastructures.

Our rational thinking is important. But when we are in distress it is feelings which matter, the overwhelm of negativity, the being lost and isolated and very, very frightened. It is important to listen and give time and shared humanity more than anything else.


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