My experience of the Relationships & Relatedness project by Michael Clark

When I came to this Relatedness and Relationships (R&R) in Mental Health project about a year ago it was with some trepidation that we might be walking in to waters getting ever deeper and with no buoyancy aids in sight. What concerned me at the outset was that we would get in to something that would get too complicated and overwhelming, with a consequence that there would be no solutions that could be shown to be helpful to people experiencing mental health problems, their families and friends or to the services supporting them.

Michael Clark


Relationships are fundamentally important to humans, and I wasn’t worried that we weren’t discussing an important topic.  So, why is it that, in my opinion, the topic hasn’t featured more in mental health policy?

Across the workshops we had in this R&R project an obvious focus was on the relationships of the person living with serious mental health problems.  This was their personal relationships, but also the complex nature of their relationships with those in services that are there to support them.

As we discussed the work of  Professor Jacqui Gabb from the Open University and her research on enduring love and what sustains loving relationships between couples we began to see how aspects of mental health services, especially inpatient ones,  are not very aware of how they might help to support loving relationships for people using their services.  From Jacqui’s work we saw the importance to sustaining relationships of all kinds of everyday interactions between couples.  Some of these were more routine, like regularly making a cup of tea for someone in the morning, or regular but very particular to particular couples, like dancing together. Other interactions were impromptu shows of thoughtfulness, like doing something helpful for the other person.  In the workshops we discussed how if services were more mindful of this they might begin to see what modifications they could make to their practices and arrangements to be more helpful to people to enjoy such interactions between each other and, thereby, sustain their relationships.

In discussing the work of colleagues in mental health services, including forensic ones, we delved deeper in to complex relationships between those who work in services and those they are there to help. This was especially so where there was some legal compulsion between them.  The work of Social Worker and Researcher Dr Anne Denhov from the University of Stockholm led us through what people living with serious mental health problems find most helpful about relationships with services and members of staff in them.  A key to the relationships was a sense of making people feel valued as a person by, for example, going beyond the routine of practice and what the forms say should be done.  Again, we started to think about what practitioners might do differently, and with little additional resources, if they were to be more thoughtful of this.

In the course of the project we also explored the relationships between staff in the services there to help people experiencing mental health problems.  Mental health care depends on good working between colleagues.  If they do not have good relationships between them, this work can be tougher and is less likely to deliver the best support and outcomes for those receiving the services.  We talked about how bureaucratic requirements may hinder or undermine these good relationships between staff.  We considered that organisations need to be more attentive to this and the impact on those receiving their services.

Mike Clark (third from right) as part of the Panel reflecting on the workshop, 12th Sept

We covered a lot in the year of the project.  As we reached the end of it I was more sure that relationships and relatedness are vitally important topics for mental health care to be more explicitly focused on.  I was also more reassured that by doing this services and individual practitioners could begin to find different ways of helping people that would be more enabling of good, sustained relationships and better outcomes for people.  I was also more convinced that relationships need to feature much more centrally in mental health policy.



R&R event, Birmingham, Sept 12th

Yesterday we held the event that culminates a year of work on our ISRF ‘Relatedness and Relationships in Mental Health’ project. At Park House, University of Birmingham, we welcomed 31 people with lived experience of distress and/or lived experience of using mental health and social services, carers, people who work within mental health services, in psychiatry, psychology, as peer support workers, and others, people from the voluntary sector, and from academia, representing psychology, sociology, social work, social policy and philosophy. Many of us also ticked multiple boxes!

Our scribe, Ana Luderowski, keeping notes

I was keen to try to invite people who are at all stages of their careers, so we had some trainees and students with us, as well as some people with many years of experience. I am really pleased we were able to bring together such a rich range of viewpoints.

The event included talks from myself, psychologist Dr Zoë Boden, from London South Bank University, sociologist, Professor Jacqui Gabb from Open University, Social worker /Researcher Dr Anne Denhov from University of Stockholm, clinical psychology trainee, Charlotte Marriot from University of Birmingham, and forensic clinical psychologist Donna Haskayne from Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust.

Over coffee we discussed a range of issues in thematic groups

There were discussions on thematic topics: trust, ethics, care, intimacy, reciprocity and companionship. The panel who reflected on the day included philosopher Professor Lisa Bortolotti from University of Birmingham, associate professorial social policy researcher, Dr Michael Clark from LSE, Mental Health and Social Work  Professor Jerry Tew, and psychologist Dr Michael Larkin both of University of Birmingham.

Our panel reflecting on the day: Michael Larkin, Jerry Tew, Mike Clark & Lisa Bortolotti (L-R)

It was a fantastic day and a full report of the content will follow. In the meantime, do get in touch if you’re interested in joining our e-mail list (


Relatedness and Relationships in Mental Health: ISRF funded project

The ‘Relatedness & Relationships in Mental Health’ project runs from July 2015 – September 2016, and is funded by a Flexible Grants for Small Groups award from the International Social Research Foundation.


A feeling of connection is fundamental for a flourishing life. Humans need to belong; we need frequent, positively valenced interactions with others, and at least one strong, stable and reciprocal relationship characterised by care and concern (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). If deprived of either of these, individuals are more likely to be unhappy, lonely, and stressed, and risk increased physical and mental health problems and suicide (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Yet in the context of mental health, relationships are dually implicated in both “the creation and amelioration of mental health problems” (Pilgrim, Rogers & Bentall, 2009, p.235).

However, contemporary capitalist constructions of the self, as individualist and independent, and biomedical models that construct mental illness as the result of biological processes in discreet organisms, fail to take connectedness into account. This ‘internalism’ (Broome & Bortolotti, 2010), neglects the relational context of distress and wellbeing, and has resulted in a narrow, diagnostically-led focus on the individual in mental health services and polices (Pilgrim et al., 2009).


This research project has brought together scholars from a range of disciplinary perspectives (psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, sociology) to reclaim and foreground relatedness as a central concern for mental health and wellbeing.  During the year we are holding collaborative workshops to explore three apparent paradoxes.

In September, 2016, we will culminate our work with a public event, attended by service-users, clinicians and policy makers, to examine the clinical and personal implications of our findings.