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The kindness of strangers

June 24, 2018





As some of you will know from my posts on Twitter my mother-in-law, who has been developing dementia, went missing on Thursday night. Fortunately, she was alright but, in the hours, until we discovered that on Friday morning, it was a deeply anxious time for my wife and I and for the rest of her family.

One of the compensations was receiving a torrent of messages of concern, advice and best wishes on Twitter after I had posted her picture on Thursday evening. Some of these were from friends and people I knew, some were from total strangers. They were a great source of comfort and reminded me, once again, of how much decency and kindness there is in the world. From the news and some corners of social media it is n’t always possible to get that same message.

Having grown up with a disabled brother, the kindness of strangers has always been something I have been aware of. Ironically, blindness is a very visible disability and over the years I have witnessed countless acts of kindness towards him. Even in London, with its all rush and bustle, I am always struck by how readily people will give up a seat on the Underground for him.

Such acts of kindness go much wider. Just before I left Rethink Mental Illness I had the privilege of being involved in the events surrounding “Find Mike”. The charity worked with the campaigner and expert by experience, Jonny Benjamin to try find the person who, several years previously, had helped him when he had been on Waterloo Bridge about to attempt suicide. Jonny didn’t know his name but had a recollection he was called Mike. After a week or so the person was found, not called Mike at all, and Jonny and Neil’s story has been rightly celebrated ever since.

One of things that struck me in hearing about what had happened to find the real “Mike” was how many people had come forward. At first, this seemed somewhat disturbing, was there no limit that people would go to for a few moments of celebrity. In reality, it reflected that this was a relatively common situation and that were many “strangers on the bridge” whose intervention made the crucial difference when someone was thinking of taking their own life. On Thursday night the police told me that in cases of missing people, especially older people with dementia, it is usually ordinary people in the street, noticing someone who is distressed, who ensure that missing people are found.

In suicide prevention, the role of ordinary people, whether strangers or wider family and friends, has been recognised. There is an excellent resource which has been developed by the Zero Suicide Alliance and Relias which is designed to help give ordinary people the confidence to support someone who is in distress and maybe thinking of attempting suicide.

Ordinary people of course can also be experts. On Thursday night, as well as messages of concern and best wishes, there was some powerful good advice from those who had been in the same position, both on what was best to do and, just as importantly, how to cope psychologically with the anxiety of the situation.

As we battle to work out, in a time of limited resources, how best we can meet the level of need in society, it is crucial that work out new approaches to make the best use of the role of ordinary people, communities and experts by experience. This needs to be a partnership, not an abrogation of responsibility by the state. There were some positive aspects in the idea of Big Society but it’s juxtaposition with massive cuts in public services negated these and associated the brand with a cynical attempt to cover for the withdrawal of state support.

We’re not always very good, in statutory services, at establishing and nurturing these partnerships. We get too absorbed in our own system and its pressures to look outside and, at times, we can see such initiatives as threatening to our professional identity and worth. Yet as individuals, organisations and systems we desperately need to find effective strategies to harness this dispersed community capital to provide support to individuals in need. Volunteering and the voluntary sector has an enormous role to play in this but the same austerity which has challenged public services has also reduced its resources and capacity.

It is worth remembering that this is not a level playing field. Some individuals and groups will always be more of the subject of acts of kindness and others, whether for reasons of stigma, fear or prejudice, more likely to be shunned. The journey which mental health has gone though in the last 10 years, has, no doubt, impacted positively on the willingness of people to interact and support someone in obvious mental distress.  Other groups still have that more negative experience.

But the biggest challenge is to ourselves. Whether or not you are religious, the story of the Good Samaritan remains one of the most special parts of the Christian tradition. We can all be too busy, too self-important, too frightened  not to stop to help someone in distress but when we do, we do something very special.


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  1. There is a lovely book by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor about the virtues and pleasures of kindness

  2. Great post. Worth remembering in these dark (and getting darker) days

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