There is no normal.

Anyone who’s been in and around mental health services, or the service user/survivor movements will have heard lines like “Who wants to be normal anyway?”. In the context of mental health, normal can be seen as an unattainable societal ideal that few (whether they’ve been in services or not) can attain, but all can be unfavourably compared against. This is normal as a stick with which to beat people who have the temerity to be a bit different.  At the same time, many people who’ve experienced or are going through mental distress might wish for a little more order and peace in their lives, fewer extremes. This is normal as reliable, trustworthy, and regular.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted something we all knew: top-down, centralised, one-size-fits-all approaches, heavy on remote bureaucracy and diktat, do not work well. Local responses have been far more effective, drawing on the inherent skills and resources of professionals and citizens, statutory organisations, charities, co-operatives, collectives, and communities: people from all backgrounds have worked innovatively and fluidly in response to the complex, multi-layered challenges, pulling together in a mutual, reciprocal fashion to alleviate distress and meet need. This way of working is not new for many of us, and service users and survivors have had to be well practiced in finding our own solutions through years of hardship and austerity. There will be fewer resources (if any) in mental health, greater need and the previous way of doing things simply can’t be revived, which the mental health system is having trouble comprehending. Users and survivors on the other hand, are better equipped to cope with the loss of what others have found normal: maybe we never had it, or we saw it for the double-edged sword it was. We’ve practiced Asset Based Community Development before it was even termed such. In a way, talking to service users about how to manage in uncertain times is like teaching your granny to suck eggs. But these days, who sucks eggs? It’s hardly normal, is it? Probably just as well given that there is no normal.

The last few pandemic months have seen the word normal being bandied about an awful lot in phrases like “the new normal”, or “when things get back to normal” and mental health services have been no exception, with mission statements and vision documents yearning for normality and stability and a strong undercurrent of regret for the world just not being normal enough to let them function as per usual. In this context, in a way combining both interpretations of the word, it is assumed that normality will return, that a narrow way of working and behaving will resume, that things will settle down.

What, though, if they don’t? Obviously, Covid-19 isn’t going away any time soon, while on the near horizon is the huge disruption that Brexit will wreak (regardless of which way you may have voted), and overshadowing everything is the colossal impact of climate change. Various Silicon Valley types, pretentious managers and buzz-word politicians may wax lyrical about disruption but what they mean is small-beer upending of conventions or trying to by-pass legislation they don’t like. Disrupt them as people and they soon protest. We are all going to be perpetually disrupted in a very real and personal way: whatever was normal (for good or bad) has gone. 

Emotional health, well-being and living without fear, distress and anxiety are fundamental. And a right we all have to strive to uphold. The greatest asset a place has is its people: we need and want people to feel accepted, understood and supported, enabling them to feel physically and emotionally safe, but with support and help close to hand. We have the talent, resilience, and ability to work together differently to tackle deep-seated and widespread issues and to navigate the upcoming uncertainty and turmoil: it’s what you do, because you’re a decent person. In our different ways, with our various skills, our diverse experiences and knowledge of life, we have the same purpose: to look out for, care for and support each other. It might be that we are all that we have, but that is more than enough. 


Alisdair Cameron, September 2020


Read all the pieces in our short series, NSUN and the new normal:

"The old normal meant poverty and inequality. The new normal for mental health has to be different", by Emily Reynolds

"There is no normal" by Alisdair Cameron

"Normal saw millions trapped in the poverty cycle. Is that what we want to return to?" Part 1 and Part 2, by Amy Wells.