I grew up on the edge of London, close to several large mental hospitals. My father was a psychiatric social worker for a time, and he grimly remarked that the Victorians had placed the institutions out of the city to keep the residents out of sight.
There’s been a sea change in our attitudes to mental health since then and Muckamore Abbey Hospital, just outside Antrim, was set up in 1949 as a model of enlightened good practice. But police are now investigating allegations of physical and emotional abuse directed towards residents with severe mental illness and learning difficulties.
The individuals responsible need to be held to account, but events like this raise questions for me about the values that underpin how we care for vulnerable people. A starting point is recognising that this work is important and challenging.
Until I started teaching mindfulness around a decade ago I had little contact with this sector, and my experience since then has been sobering. Engaging with mental illness means touching a person’s pain and confusion, and I sometimes feel baffled by the challenge of connecting with people with very serious problems.
Meeting professionals, whose work I’d largely taken for granted, I’m often struck by the depth of their kindness and patience. On one mindfulness course I taught for prisoners a woman prison officer befriended a man who was on suicide watch. The meditation seemed to help a bit, but what really lifted him out of depression was the deep kindness with which she listened to him. She told me she was just doing her job, but what a job she was doing!
In Buddhism, caring for people in need is recognised as a high calling. The Buddha said, ‘If you want to care for me, you should care for the sick,’ and doing so is considered a spiritual practice that can be as transformative as meditation or reflection. The key quality a healer requires, in the Buddhist perspective, is compassion: the capacity to recognise a person’s humanity, respond to their suffering with kindness and help them recognise the hidden strengths that lie beyond their difficulties.
One response to serious problems in the health and social care systems addresses standards and safeguarding; another considers how to attract and retain good staff. But, engaging with these issues as a Buddhist, I think that, if we want these services to offer genuinely compassionate care, we must recognise this as a moral and spiritual challenge, as well as an organisational one.