Thursday, August 23, 2018

Political Activism and Mental Health


opendemocracy |  ‘Social prescribing,’ where patients with depression join in community activities as a part of their treatment, is moving from the fringe of medical practice to the mainstream. Matt Hancock, the new British Minister for Health and Social Care, has pledged £4.5m to promote it, but we should stop to think before we take this medicine: linking patients to their communities is a positive step, but a better move would be for people to get involved in social activism.

The Minister probably has one eye on his budget, since social prescribing is thought to stop patients coming back to doctor’s surgeries—so saving the state money in the National Health Service (NHS). But this scheme, which normally involves referring the patient to a link worker who then recommends different types of community activity for them, is about more than balancing the books: in fact the NHS is administering a large dose of social theory. 

Almost 20 years ago, the American Political Scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone. Since then there has been a groundswell of interest in its central concept of ‘social capital’—the idea that community bonds such as those developed in bowling leagues in the USA make both individuals and societies happier and healthier. 

Putnam is a nuanced writer, but the core focus of Bowling Alone is on community participation not social activism. He wants to unify us not cause political fights, and hopes to develop a country of association-joiners: religious service attenders, sports club players, park gardeners, members of knitting circles and school governors. In one interview he analogises this to a honeycomb, a social system of welcoming and interlocking groups, each empowered as a part of a greater civic whole.

Charismatic, and with the enigmatic appearance of a nineteenth century preacher, Putnam has become an academic celebrity. His ideas on social capital have been met with great enthusiasm by policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic. One British policy group working right at the heart of the Cabinet Office has called him the most influential political scientist alive. Before his promotion, Hancock held the British Government’s brief for civil society, and the influence of Bowling Alone can be clearly felt in his new policy on social prescribing. Linking individual depression to a lack of community activity takes a leaf straight out of Putnam’s book.