Turning toward the people who are not safe

By Heather Cobb, Copeland Centre facilitator and mental health system survivor

“Turning towards or away was one of the simplest expressions of being alive. Deer turned towards predators, babies turned toward the breast, flowers turned towards the sun. Dune wondered again; what was it that could snatch so much essence out of a person that they were less motivated to survive than a flower?”

Grievers (Black Dawn Series) by Adrienne Maree Brown

There is an assumption in mental health services that people who ask for treatment must lack a basic sense of safety. Versions of the trauma informed trend have enhanced the myth that the only time to treat a person is once they have stabilised in the ‘safety’ phase. The solution to this (assumed) problem has become individualised. The person seeking help must harness their motivation to live if they want to get better. “You have to want to get better.”

Usually getting better involves a formalised plan – a safety plan. The rationale for safety planning is that people find themselves in temporary states of pain. This pain impairs their decision-making thus making them unsafe. People are unsafe to be left alone and unsafe to be worked alongside. This has bred the superstitious invocation of the safety plan as a weapon against unsafety itself. If a plan exists on the record system, the person is now safe.

I have spent the last seven years co-creating Wellness Recovery Action Plans with members of the public who have sought support for their mental health. They very much want to get better. They often begin by looking to me for the method and warning me how unsafe they are. It seems strange that I might be focused more on helping them to live a good life than getting them better. I, myself am not better. Admittedly, a large part of this work towards a good life has been spent in groups; imagining what a useful safety plan might look like. I have learned to listen to group members’ own testimony that they are not safe. Before WRAP groups, I had underestimated how unsafe people were and how much they knew about the threats in their own lives.

People do not feel safe in their homes, on the streets, at work, in their personal relationships. I began looking for statistics to see if I could back up my anecdotal learning and found an annual poll by the Opinion and Lifestyle Survey (OPN), who poll the British public’s perception of personal safety and experiences of harassment on an annual basis. In March 2022, 27% of women and 16% of men reported experiencing at least one form of harassment in the past year. People said they felt less safe walking alone in all settings after dark than during the day. Disabled people felt less safe in all settings than non-disabled people did, day or night. The number of people who had stopped going out in busy public spaces had fallen from 38% to 23%. That still leaves nearly a quarter of respondents who have quietly disappeared from our everyday public lives.

As I looked through the search results, I found polls from the Girl Guides to suggest that the majority of girls feel unsafe in school. In fact, 61% of children with a ‘probable mental disorder’ felt unsafe at school (NHS figures). Polls of office workers in 2021 suggested 71% felt unsafe in their office and at risk of Covid. Surveys of renters (especially in those living in high rise blocks) showed increased rates of fear of house fires, one in five LGBT people had experienced a hate crime or incident because of their sexual identity or gender (Stonewall, 2017). The last few years of austerity, pandemic and widening social proximity seem to have left many of us less safe and more vulnerable than ever.

Much of the work that went into facilitating WRAP groups after the pandemic became about exploring the safety that had been lost. Little by little, as a collective, we could begin to identify what the new kind of safety in our lives might be. We also acknowledged that living a good life might mean living with threat and without protection or care. That brought up a lot of grief. I got a piece of feedback on an anonymous post it note: ‘Lovely, the session felt like safe.’ Our time together had felt like safety, but the person had not described themselves as safe because they weren’t. I hadn’t made that person safe, it wasn’t in my power to do that. Groups can be places for people to plan for the threats and big problems in their lives, even ones that cannot be neatly overcome.

I suspect that is where our thinking on safety might need to go next. If we cannot make people safe because they are not safe in their minds or in their lives, then what are we safety planning for?

When I read Dawn’s words in the quote above, I see vulnerable creatures that are easily harmed. Deer, babies, flowers, who turn toward what they need most in that moment. They all rely on others to respond. If we don’t respond, then they cannot survive. I keep seeing stories of people who turned toward mental health services but were turned away. Sometimes they are rejected for not following their safety plan. If the services must puzzle over what it is that snatches so much of our essence then maybe I can suggest that it is the relentless march of safety planning.

I believe that as a country, we have denied peoples’ testimony that they are not safe and that they need our care. Maybe we feel far less compassion for real human beings who seek help than we feel picturing a deer, a baby or a flower. Perhaps, deep down, we know that witnessing a vulnerable person in an unsafe situation asks a lot of us and that is hard to bear. It’s so easy to turn away from our responsibility and yet in doing so, we create these unsafe services, unsafe spaces. It isn’t in our power to save every human being, but it is in our power to nurture that essence, that turning towards us with the will to stay alive.

About Heather Cobb

Heather has been involved in Wellness Recovery Action Plan Facilitation, peer bibliotherapy and co producing group work in community and NHS settings. Heather draws on her own  experience of bipolar and a dissociative post traumatic disorder as well as dialogic and narrative ideas she has learned from others. She enjoys dog walking, art and having a lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel on her forehead.

This blog is part of our series on safety and care in healthcare settings. You can find the other pieces in the series here.