Can we escape the invisible asylum?

Since their origins in the Poor Laws, our ideas about helping people have been tangled up with feelings about excluding or punishing them. To become the subject of state support was once to cross a physical threshold: the gates of the workhouse, lunatic asylum or long-stay ‘hospital’ for disabled people. Many of those thresholds have disappeared into folk-memory, but the idea of separating people into those who are citizens of their communities, and those who are wards of the state, remains threaded through our health, care and support services, in ways which have become so familiar they are invisible.

The rules and assumptions of the invisible asylum can be felt in ‘community’ services which feel nothing like community. They start with assessments and means tests which challenge people to prove their level of need, often at the cost of believing in their independence. They are felt in approaches that treat families who have managed on their own for years, as though they are capable only of being ‘difficult’ for the very services which ignored them before they reached crisis point.

This is not to decry the value of our underfunded and undervalued public services. But for our welfare state to survive, we need to be able to see it clearly: the miracles our services can achieve in the operating theatre and their small, devastating failures to see the person underneath the patient’s gown. There was a time when most of us could ignore those failures, hoping that we wouldn’t find ourselves in need of state support, or would need it only for a brief period which we prefer not to think about. But now we live longer lives, with longer periods of ill health, frailty or social isolation. Whether those years – and in many cases decades – in which we need state support will amount to a good life is not solely in the gift of GPs, surgeons or social workers. It depends for most of us on the relationships we have with everyone we rely on: our family and friends, alongside people paid to help us.

So we need models of community support which focus as much on ‘community’ as ‘support’. Working for nearly eight years with the remarkable people involved in Shared Lives and Homeshare has brought into perspective for me the inability of many services to escape the asylums of their origins. I have also witnessed supportive relationships which do not sacrifice the social for the care, which recognise interdependence is as important as independence, and that caring is an emotion before it is an activity.

In my forthcoming book, A new health and care system: escaping the invisible asylum (Policy Press, February 2018) I outline a possible health and care system which would take the ethos and practices of asset-based and community-orientated support models and build a system and a sustainable economics around them. A system which would demand, measure and pay for the goals – wellbeing, resilience, confident households – we all agree we want, but seem to accept we cannot have. The people who currently shape services have proved themselves incapable of designing approaches to achieve those more human goals. They can only be co-designed with the people who make long term use of services, their families and workers. They would offer us more but would only work if we were prepared to have more asked of us in return.

Those services would be organised at a more personal scale, perhaps eventually eschewing the traditional idea of an organisation entirely, so the book focuses as much on what needs scaling down to human size, as on scaling up the innovations of which we need more. It starts with those failures we should see as inexcusable, yet ignore or dismiss, but it is rooted in the belief that we can and do care for each other, and that the only future for our public services is to create spaces in which people with support needs, families and front line workers can have the relationships we would all wish to have.

You can order A new health and care system: escaping the invisible asylum from the Policy Press. The launch at Nesta on 28 Feb, which has done so much to support our work, is here. The Northern launch event with Greater Manchester’s Chief Officer Jon Rouse is at MetroPolis on 20th March.

6 thoughts on “Can we escape the invisible asylum?

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