Community mediation at a crossroads – Can we meet the challenge of the mental health crisis?

Back in the mid 1990’s when I first became involved in community mediation it was very much an extension of local authority and housing association best practice. Mediation charities like YM were virtually entirely reliant on resolving issues between neighbours, and I well recall a judge in Sheffield saying that mediation was appropriate only when resolving disputes between people living next door to each other. Since then, the use of mediation has extended to virtually every aspect of inter-personal and organisational conflict following the sea change in facilitating better communication and conflict management. The courts are now wiser about the wider benefits of mediation and restorative interventions.

Communication is now easier as people can access better procedures for nipping conflict in the bud. Take workplace mediation, where most employers now have very precise procedures before taking disciplinary action. In education schools now adopt multi-tiered approaches to dealing with issues arising between school and parents, between pupil and school, or between pupils. In health services, elder care, welfare provision, disability and discrimination, and within the criminal justice system, we now have a far better understanding of restorative approaches to transform relationships rather than adopting a punitive or one size fits all approach. We can give a voice to those who felt excluded before.

But if adopting appropriate procedures to deal with society’s tensions have improved and the access points expanded, the level of stress and tensions have generated the most severe mental health problems I have ever known. Rising nationalism and political tensions over Brexit, the effects of 10 years of austerity and rising job insecurity, the changing workplace as technological solutions reduce the need for human interaction, all create more scope for conflict.  Above all, the current COVID pandemic has exacerbated the mental health problems and we seem to be sleepwalking into a mental health crisis. In England, the Centre for Mental Health has predicted that up to 10 million people – almost a fifth of the population – will need mental health support as a direct consequence of Covid-19, with 1.5 million of those expected to be children and young people under 18. The effect on patients with pre-existing mental health problems and on those from underprivileged backgrounds is even greater, painting a bleak picture for those already suffering.

Particularly now, encouraging people to be good neighbours has been one of the few benefits of this pandemic. But there are many vulnerable adults and children who need additional support. Many need long term therapy. That isn’t the role of mediation but where mediation and mediation training scores massively is in removing those pressure points that exacerbate existing mental health issues. We can help mediating online or as necessary to reconstitute communication between neighbours, teach children to be peacemakers to their peers, facilitate meetings between parents and a child who has run away from home to reduce homelessness. We can also reduce violence by giving victims a voice and perpetrators the chance to learn the effect of what they did and to say sorry. There are so many ways mediated interventions can help make communities more cohesive, acting as a complimentary service to longer term therapeutic help. YMS is ready and willing to step up to this massive challenge and help to create balanced and harmonious communities.

Anthony Glaister January 2020