Let’s be real Partners

Survivor groups are key to real partnership
working between users and staff, argues Peter Campbell.

Shortly after New Labour’s first election
victory, a friend returned from a prestigious mental health
conference saying: “It’s all about partnerships now. If you want to
get noticed that’s what you must mention.” And so it proved.
Partnership has become a key concept in health and social care
alongside empowerment, evidence-based approaches, Best Value and
the rest.

But talk of partnership can mean something
real or nothing much. While everyone likes the idea of working
closely with others towards common goals in a relationship that
allows give and take and a degree of equality, in the real world
there are interactions that have only one or two, or even none, of
the above qualities. I once ran a workshop for social care workers
where it was clear that most participants had a very woolly idea of
how partnership was different from other working relationships

These difficulties are important for service
users. We are almost always the less powerful partner. We do not
write the rule book. Loose talk disadvantages us most.

I see give and take as vital to partnership.
This creates problems in relationships with professionals. I had
the same community psychiatric nurse for 15 years and worked
closely with him. But I do not see it as a partnership. I never
asked him about his personal life or supported him through
distress. It was one-way traffic and he would have been shocked at
anything else. The best one-to-one partnership in services that I
have experienced was with my advocate – a close friend and fellow

I have been lucky that at a time when I was
pretty washed up, survivor action gave me opportunities to be
involved in a good few creative partnerships: making the programme
We’re not Mad…We’re Angry, collaborating on publications with
Survivors Speak Out and Survivors’ Poetry. The history of survivor
activity is full of little appreciated examples of partnerships
that worked.

Of course, partnerships also change. My friend
is no longer my advocate but my carer, a position that gives her
more power to voice her concerns. A number of the groups I have
worked in have disappeared, perhaps because the common objectives
were no longer powerful enough to keep people together or the
balance of give and take was eroded or people became too exhausted
defending partnerships in an unfriendly environment. Whatever the
slogans, real partnership is never easy.

An important part of the survivor critique is
about relationships with people in services and society. It is a
mistake to accept the rhetoric of partnership at face value. This
leaves us in a weak position to examine what is going on when we
work with others. Instead survivor organisations should be critical
of the partnerships offered them, should decide for themselves what
are the essential elements of partnership and be prepared to refuse
to work with those who do not meet the criteria. The time to be
afraid to turn down opportunities should be long past.

Peter Campbell is a mental health
system survivor and works as a freelance trainer.

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