Between 2004 and 2007 Hester Parr held an ESRC research fellowship on mental health and social inclusion (ESRC Res-000-27-0043). The programme of research was intended to update knowledge about the ‘place’ of people with severe and enduring mental health problems in contemporary UK society at that time. This concern with ‘placing’ prompted strategic questions relating to the how, if and why this diverse group achieved versions of social stability and belonging through participation in different kinds of community spaces.
Theoretically, the research programme sought to intervene in understandings of mobile subjectivities and related embodied geographies by centralising questions of psychological vulnerability, thereby challenging post-structuralist literature that uncritically valorise ‘progressive’ identity formation as a process characterised by dislocation, fluidity and fragmentation (Parr and Philo, 1995). Instead, the research programme privileged properties of stability and locatedness for those with mental health problems, ascertaining how and where stable senses of belonging might accumulate for such a vulnerable population, and exploring the implications for the concomitant restructuring of ill identities. Building on past work (Parr, 1999), as well as evolving theoretical agendas regarding disability, chronic illness and mental health in the geography discipline and beyond, this agenda interrogated the implications of ‘rescripting’ embodied difference. The research sought to explicate the different spatial(ised) relationships involved in a movement away from the ‘mental patient’ as a problematic, often stigmatised social figure to new formulations of selves and identities, ones achieved partly through participation in particular spaces: in this case, natural, artistic and technological (Parr, 2008). These geographies of participation were analysed with respect to thinking on the spatial constitution of self-other, cast here as relations of inside/outside, inclusion/exclusion and proximity/distance.
This theoretical lens intersected with (then) current policy framings influencing the social life of people with mental health problems beyond health and community care legislation, and specifically, the UK’s social inclusion/social exclusion agenda. This group was a special focus of the ‘Social Exclusion Unit’, whose policy guidance suggests that their inclusion is best achieved by raising levels of employment via welfare-to-work programmes. Critiques of state approaches to social inclusion suggest this to be a limited vision, misconstruing the geographies through which inclusion may be achieved, especially regarding a ‘new localism [that] casts… geographically-defined communities and/or neighbourhoods’ as the solution to social exclusion, clearly a very particular condensation of the social and the spatial (Amin et al 2002, p19). There was hence a need to deconstruct ‘community’ by comparing different spaces through which social inclusion might be experienced, and by disrupting the logic assuming that inclusion might (simply) arise as a result of caring relations at a local level which straightforwardly render excluded groupings (like people with mental health problems) as ‘same’, with ready access to employment, healthcare, housing etc. This research programme met this challenge, and in light of critical academic thinking about social and active citizenship (and see Parr 2005ab; 2006ab; 2007ab and 2008).
Parr, H and Philo, C (1995) ‘Mapping mad identities,’ in Pile, S and Thrift N (eds) Mapping the Subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation (Routledge, London), pp.199-225
Parr H (1997a) ‘Sane’ and ‘Insane’ Spaces: New Geographies of Deinstitutionalisation,University of Wales, Lampeter (unpublished PhD thesis).
Parr, H (1997b) ‘Mental health, public space and the city: questions of individual and collective access,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14, pp.435-454
Parr, H (2000) ‘Interpreting the ‘hidden social geographies’ of mental health: inclusion and exclusion in semi-institutional places,’ Health and Place 6, pp.225-237
Parr, H. (2005a) ‘Workforce or workfare?’ Mental Health Today April 2005, 28-31.
Parr, H. (2005b) ‘Sustainable communities? Nature work and mental health’ Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 101, 6-9.
Parr, H. (2006a) ‘Mental health, the arts and belonging’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31(2), 150-166.
Parr, H. (2006b) Arts and Social Capital’ Mental Health Today June, 2006, 15-19.
Parr, H. (2007a) ‘Mental health, nature work, and social inclusion’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25, 537-561.
Parr, H. (2007b) ‘Collaborative film-making as process, method and text in mental health research’. Cultural Geographies 14, 114-138.