How support became a dirty word

When did the term ‘support’ become a dirty word? Has it slowly become tarnished or only recently tossed into the dustbin of healthcare?

When I was talking with a group of mental health workers a couple of weeks ago, we got on to discussing their concerns about the tremendous pressure there is to discharge people back to their general practitioner. Many of the service users they work with have ongoing severe mental health problems in need of considerable support. However, unless they are apparently still in receipt of identifiable ‘treatment’ they can no longer be under care from specialist services. Presumably treatment here refers mainly to a psychological therapy of some sort. I’ve also heard from people on twitter that even when medication has just been changed, they can still get sent straight back to their GP – before their psychiatrist can ‘support’ them through the first couple of weeks change in meds – something I always thought was important given the potential for concerns about side effects and other risks. Indeed, one person tweeted that their psychiatrist had been threatened with disciplinary action for failing to discharge patients. Who by, I find myself wondering? – but I know actually- those within the system who have no clinical responsibility, and no formal professional accountability other than financial. Yet this is a question about quality of care and safety, rather than cost.

But what happened to support itself as a therapeutic intervention in our health care system? Do we, as a society no longer value it? Of course we do. A support is something that helps to bear the weight- to give assistance- material or emotional. We still have people who are called ‘support workers’ but I  suspect that they too are expected to deliver some kind of ‘intervention’. Everyone else certainly is. Don’t get me wrong- in the past I witnessed people just getting a cup of tea and a chat when they might have actually benefited from formal  psychological therapy. I used to ‘support’ people to a point where they might be able to engage with it- be willing to actually go and talk to a therapist. And when they came back too- and tried to get on with everyday life. I guess that would be called ‘promoting recovery’ now- except you have to see the recovery team to get it, and it’s time limited. For many of my patients it was ‘supportive psychotherapy’ that kept them alive: engaging, listening, empathising, encouraging, promoting self-esteem, kindness, always providing hope. And caring. I suspect I would be ‘strongly discouraged’ from continuing to do that now unless I could provide a justification other than ‘to support’- even in taking medication.

It seems that what is done to us now as patients must be measurable, time-limited and provided in a transactional, instrumental manner that subtracts what is human from the equation. Especially the building of those life-saving relational bonds with someone you see regularly and who knows you. A person who recognises when you’re not your usual self. A person who phones when you don’t turn up when expected and calls round to check you are okay. And this denigration of support isn’t only happening in mental health care, but in physical health care too. As people develop more chronic illnesses, services are under increasing pressure to discharge.

It’s hard to put a value on ‘support’ but have we really thought through the consequences of devaluing it? Many of us value our independence, even as we grow older (and frailer), but self-management has its limits. Instead we have a creeping culture of a peculiar pseudopsychological theory of uncertain origin that denigrates anything potentially leading to ‘dependence’, and calls workers who demonstrate kindness and concern ‘rescuers’. Throughout our lives we are all dependent on others with whom we develop those powerful bonds that keep us going. They support us and keep us alive. Many of us take that for granted. Don’t allow them to throw away the support needed by others to survive.

And please, let’s not just take it lying down.

2 thoughts on “How support became a dirty word”

  1. I saw my pyschiatrist from 2011 till she retired in late 2016, it was that continuing support, support which at times challenged me, at times which just kept me ticking over is what kept me alive, it allowed me to recover to a point where I was well enough to engage in long term private talking therapy, it helped me back to work, more than once and helped me stay there. I can quite catagorically say that without her I wouldn’t be here. When she left though the support available was suddenly very challenging, antagonistic, time limited and when you rallied against that you were quickly discharged back to primary care. Thankfully I have supportive GPs but what about those people for whom its not enough?

  2. Excellent! Like you, I have noticed this awful downgrading of long term follow-up by mental health services. Long term needs require long term provision: failure to prioritise this is inhumane, as well as expensive when crises result and in-patient care then required.

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