In our eagerness to be helpful, are we in fact, all part of the problem?
Entire industries rely on being needed to help people. Having people in need of help gives these industries a justification to exist. Ultimately, we can never get away from the uncomfortable fact that it pays many of our salaries. We all play our part in an expensive game of bidding, competing for and winning ‘work’.
How is it that we have allowed ‘helping’ to become a game that is about winning business? What part do we play in building and perpetuating the structures that dehumanise people and desensitize us all in the process? We operate within systems that are referring to human beings as labels, categorised by their deficits (NEETS), deprivation (“bottom of the pile”) or trauma (CSE). These systems fly over the top of, around, or sit entirely apart from the very people caught up in these issues.
The root causes that lead to cycles of people finding themselves at risk, excluded, offending or forgotten are inequality and power. What would it look like if we invested as much resource into preventing people from falling into a position of desperation, exasperation or need, or, if having failed at the prevention hurdle, we made it easy for them seek and get help quickly, with dignity and agency? Instead, at times of vulnerability or poor mental health, excluded groups find services unacceptably hard to reach.
My fear is that on some level, we all play a part in feeding the structures that perpetuate inequality such that there will forever be people that remain stuck, or cycle into, a position of need. As such, there will always be a role for people that ‘qualify’ for the seat of helper.
I’m uncomfortable with a landscape where the ‘helper’ approaches problems in the following way:
identify the need (point to the problem/the needy person or population)
tell us how you address it (as the hero do something to fix the person or population)
demonstrate the sustainability (there will always be the needy, and the needy will always need a helper, so you need to be here forever, doing more of the same)
This may seem like an arbitrary way to frame the structures that underpin the help sector, but it sometimes feels that when we take an individualistic (let’s fix people), rather than a contextual approach (let’s fix the environment and structures) we all fall into the trap of diving into competition to work with a marketplace of needy people. So many solutions to many of society’s challenges exist already, many of them in the very communities that we claim to be helping. What is it that keeps us driving for new ideas (new business) when effective, early intervention (long-term) and often grassroots solutions exist?
People that join the help sector want to use their passion, energy, talents, skills, training and values to make a difference in the world. I’m interested in a conversation about a sector that is genuinely willing to tackle these perpetuating structures, by addressing the issue of our own dependency on people that ‘need our help’. How do we start to change?
Sinem is CEO of MAC-UK, an organisation that aims to transform mental health delivery for excluded young people.