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News from Lemos&Crane

Ethos and Practice: Comparing approaches to working with vulnerable people

Gerard Lemos

20 November 2013

Many vulnerable people have complex histories which involve histories of offending, drug use, mental health problems, homelessness, family conflict and relationship breakdown.  There are clearly overlaps among these problems and many people have many problems.  Nevertheless it would be wrong to assume that people who have had one or two of these problems have had the lot. Despite these overlaps and similarities in people’s needs each sector of support agencies has evolved its own ethos and hermetic moral universe. Prisons and services for ex-offenders have a heavy underpinning of moral notions of right and wrong.  Drug services are seen as health problems as well as aspects of criminality; the boundaries are not always clearly drawn.  Mental illness requires treatment but is also a risk to public protection. People with intellectual disabilities need safeguarding as well as independence.  Homeless people are not tarred with the brush of moral transgression, but they are implicitly seen as social failures – people who cannot move on and live independently.  Stigma is strong, often incoherent, insufficiently contested and easily divorced from the specific needs or identity of an individual. Labels become identities in the minds of others and, if repeated often enough, in the mind of the individual themselves.

When ethos becomes practice in service delivery, the differences are actualized: rehabilitation and desistance in prisons; ‘moving on’ in homelessness; recovery in mental health; abstinence in drug use; person-centred planning for people with learning disabilities; ‘sensible’ or ‘moderate’ consumption of alcohol and so on – the variety again not always adequately explained by the needs of the individual intended beneficiary. 

The metatexts certainly need interrogation and challenge and there are no doubt all sorts of opportunities to learn from unexplored and unexplained differences in ethos and approaches.  Such a multi-disciplinary community of inquiry would undoubtedly produce spaces for challenge, a welcome iconoclasm, new descriptive language, creative and original ideas, new intellectual fusions and opportunities to develop services that would be innovative in the context in which they were subsequently deployed even if they had an established track record elsewhere.  That would be worthwhile in itself.

But alongside these differences in ethos and practice, there may be a more troubling and depressing commonality between these different sectors.  Ethos and practice in all of them to varying degrees shows insufficient interest in the higher things of life: love, truth or beauty.  The effort to professionally correct or restore people’s humanity too readily ignores the most profound human instincts.  To take the example of homelessness services: Homelessness services have to some extent in recent years focused on people’s emotional needs for friendships, relationships or re-connecting with families and children but there is still much to be done, as there is much to be done in supporting the family life of prisoners.  Little or no attention is paid to spiritual needs or aspirations of homeless people, by contrast with prisons where mindfulness (meditation, yoga, spirituality) have become a more common though not wholly mainstream aspect of prison life.  Little interest is shown in the possibilities that creativity has for self-expression and building and re-building more positive personal and social identities, despite a long history of research and evidence about the benefits of arts therapies.  Positive psychology techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy which are now widespread in mental health services and have been tried (and criticized) in prisons have yet to become commonplace in homelessness services.  The expanding use of nature-based activities, like growing food or caring for animals, for promoting wellbeing has also not received much attention in homelessness services.  The growing debate about happiness and how it is achieved has also not found its place in any of these services, though it is hard to imagine worlds in which the question of what makes people happy could be more relevant. The ‘good lives’ model for ex-offenders seeks to address these larger, more fundamental questions but runs the risk of falling into the fallacy of beneficial action. Action may be merely consolatory; contemplation may be the route to the truer benefit of acceptance.

So there does seem to be an opportunity for new inquiry, insight and innovation, but not just by comparing closed, non-porous professional models. Instead the exploration would need to be into more universal and humanistic questions and the resonances and echoes of them found in this or that vale of tears.

 

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