Joining the Dots: Part five of Connecting Well

The head of an adolescent mental health unit once told me that his patients typically had six to ten contacts stored on their mobile phone and that most of those contacts were professional helpers like himself. He compared this number to the dimensions of his daughter’s address book and concluded that social isolation might be both a cause and a consequence of his young patient’s ill health, it was certainly a common characteristic.

This series of short blogs is about connecting well, not about being well connected. There is a very important difference. Connecting well is not about the length of our contact list, it is about the quality of our relationships. However of course we can’t have meaningful relationships if we don’t have any connections at all or if those we do have are primarily utilitarian.

The concept of Circles of Support originated around the social care sector and was developed to better understand how service users can be helped to manage their own lives, set and achieve their own goals. The concept has been extended in a variety of ways and with a range of groups but essentially it is a model for strengthening and building connections in and across four concentric circles:

1. Intimate relationships – partners, family and very close friends are in the innermost circle.

2. Our friends are in the second circle.

3. The people we know through participation in the community make up the third circle. This might include neighbours, colleagues or fellow members of an association.

4. Those with whom we have a paid connection are in the outermost circle – staff in the local shops for example.

If we populate this model with the network of the Adult Mental Health Unit patient we can see first that there are very few dots and second that these few connections are largely in the weakest circles.

Every dot has a network of its own. Close to the centre of the model these networks will overlap and interact as we meet the friends of our friends. This becomes less and less likely as we move away from the centre – it is improbable that the young patient will meet the friends of their NHS psychiatrist. So it is that relatively dense circles grow quickly whilst relatively sparse ones rarely grow at all.

If we made, as I have suggested in previous blogs, meaningful relationships the central operating principle in our community, school, work place etc we would nurture and embed more connections and stronger connections in each of the four circles. Revisiting the changes that I suggested in blogs 2 and 3 we can see that fundamentally rethinking our use of technology can catalyse change in the first circle. Buddying schemes and changes in the neighbourhood planning regulations would impact on the second circle. Having fun together – choirs and allotments and sports clubs – are all about the third one. Slow shopping sessions and segmented GP lists would strengthen and enhance the outermost circle.

But here’s the big question:

How often have you heard people say…

”Terrific. Automated checkouts. I do so hate cheerful cashiers”?

Or “Excellent. Yet another adviser at the Job Centre different from the one I’ve come to trust”?

Or even “How wonderful, a call centre with recorded messages. Always so much nicer than an actual human being”?

Me neither. Clearly popular opinion isn’t shaping policy and sensible models are not enough. What is it then that, as Clare Wightman asks in her comment on my last blog, “consistently pushes relationships out of the picture?”

Shani Lee’s comment a week earlier might have part of the answer. “one of our conversations locally is that not everything and especially not social relationships needs to be sanctioned by the council. Moral panic about safeguarding is a particular challenge.”

Is that it? Have we really become so frightened of one another that we seek to avoid human connection and meaningful relationships?

Or if this isn’t about our fears perhaps it is about our capabilities? A friend was telling me about an adult daughter marvelling at her mother having the confidence to ask a stranger for street directions. So accustomed was she to the Google map solution that she had never had to do it. Are we evolving into a species with pointy texting thumbs replacing the capacity for human interaction? More seriously are our mores and conventions shaping new modes of behaviour which effectively atomise and automate, separate and distance?

We cannot reverse technological progress or deny its overwhelming benefits – it is a largely wonderful thing. Instead we must learn how to use it in ways which don’t diminish our humanity but sustain and enrich it and in forms which benefit everybody and especially benefit those with sparse circles and 6 to 10 names in the contact book. We can’t do that without properly and fully understanding everything that is currently getting in the way.

I hope we can keep returning to Clare’s question in future blogs and I would really appreciate your contributions: Why aren’t we joining the dots? What are the obstacles and where are the trail blazers that we should be looking at and learning from?

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