22 May 2020

By Professor Dame Sue Bailey, Chair of Centre for Mental Health

During ‘lockdown’, acts of human kindness have both sustained and amazed us all: shown so selflessly by the life-saving acts of front line workers and the everyday acts of kindness shown by not just neighbours, friends and family but also strangers. There is a dawning realisation that the route map through and beyond COVID will be long and lead us into a changed world.

Beyond the bleak reality of global mortality rates from COVID, could the ongoing mental, emotional, social, economic and political impact of this virus provide us with a unique opportunity to revisit, better understand, learn from and act on the concept and power of kindness? Might it reinforce the place kindness could, should and, going forward, must hold in shaping evidence-based policy into practice across local and national communities, and give us a renewed sense and reality of a connected family of global health and social justice?

Utilising the science of ‘intelligent kindness’ can enable us to ‘Build Back Better’. Centre for Mental Health has started work on this with the publication last week of its first forecast of the impact of Covid-19 on the nation’s mental health. While the importance of good mental health is now better recognised, globally, prevalence rates remain high with growth in some disorders, support is under resourced, and we still face a blunt lack of parity for those with mental health problems across the lifecourse. Responding to Covid-19 cannot be isolated from our ongoing efforts to bring about greater equality for mental health in society as a whole.

The science of kindness tells us that social connectedness in all its diverse forms is crucial to health and wellbeing at the individual and population level.

As a society, we have been obedient in adhering to ‘social distancing’ rules, understanding that what is actually meant is physical distancing, while at the same time fearing the loss of social connectedness. The science of kindness tells us that social connectedness in all its diverse forms is crucial to health and wellbeing at the individual and population level.

One of the biggest acts of intelligent kindness so far took place early in the pandemic. Almost overnight, after many years of struggle, it was indeed possible to provide a roof over the heads of the homeless. We know many homeless people have pre-existing mental health problems exacerbated by homelessness. So, was this an act of kindness? Or simply one of a series of COVID risk reduction strategies? Whatever you conclude, it provides us with the opportunity to reconnect with a vulnerable group and meet their needs through our deeds, not just now but in the future. Will this happen? Yes, if we act with intelligent kindness.

How will we look back on and live with the gut-wrenching reality of mortality rates in vulnerable looked after populations in ‘residential settings’ and the sacrifices of those who have carried on the task of caring for them? Could this be the long overdue fuse that will ignite the fire to fund, value and meet the needs of older people and people with learning disabilities and autism? A real act of intelligent kindness would now be to understand the needs and unique skills of those with learning disabilities and autism, valuing their role and place in society, and supporting those with dementia and their carers to ‘live well’. 

A real act of intelligent kindness would now be to understand the needs and unique skills of those with learning disabilities and autism, valuing their role and place in society, and supporting those with dementia and their carers to ‘live well’.

So, what is all this kindness stuff about then? I can do no better than go back to the book Intelligent Kindness written by Ballat and Campling in the context of the upheaval surrounding the reform of healthcare back in 2011/12. This book spoke to me on many different levels. At the time, as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, all conversation was about the impending Health and Social Care Act. It was also the time when the focus of my research was on the social psychology of health and concepts of social scaffolding and social connectedness. What did I learn from this book? There was a need to rescue the concept of kindness from "the grip of a range of social and cultural forces that warp, denigrate and obscure what it is", and that "marginalise kindness in the debate about what matters and make it more difficult to be kind."

"…The word kindness indicates the quality or state of being kind. It describes a condition in which people recognise their nature, know and feel it is essentially one with that of their kin, understand and feel their interdependence, feel responsible for their successors and express all this in attitudes and actions towards each other…”

Kindness challenges us to be self-aware and takes us to the heart of relationships. It can be messy, difficult, and painful. Things can go wrong and we risk being hurt somewhere in the process. It is closely linked to compassion and sympathy and rooted in a sense of kinship.

Ballat and Campling emphasise that kindness is natural, that it "drives imagination, resourcefulness, creativity and is interpersonal, family, community and international…" and at its most effective when directed by intelligence: "matching the deed to the need”.

Kindness challenges us to be self-aware and takes us to the heart of relationships. It can be messy, difficult, and painful. Things can go wrong and we risk being hurt somewhere in the process. It is closely linked to compassion and sympathy and rooted in a sense of kinship.

We have seen intelligent kindness not only in the teams of health and care workers’ heroism, but in how they have been inventive, learnt together, shared new knowledge and skills. We’ve also seen it in mental health, where services across different sectors have changed their ways of working both to meet the needs of those with existing mental health problems and to reach out to those being affected by our changed ways of being.

Written in the context of a Health Care Act that deeply divided opinion, Intelligent Kindness has even more salience now. Modern life, including health and social care, has been increasingly driven by survival of the fittest; for example, by targets and market forces. But evolution is about more than that. As COVID has taught us, to be a match for an enemy we cannot see, the weapons we are building (medicines, vaccines, devices, new and not so new public health interventions) will only be effective if partnered with the tools of kindness.

to be a match for an enemy we cannot see, the weapons we are building (medicines, vaccines, devices, new and not so new public health interventions) will only be effective if partnered with the tools of kindness.

Kindness is the glue of cooperation. It’s not a soft, sentimental feeling or action that is beside the point in the challenging, clever, technical business of managing and delivering healthcare. It is a binding, creative, problem solving force that inspires and focuses the imagination and self-will.

The authors conclude with a challenge which, I believe, mental health can lead the way in: "whether we dare rescue the enlightened concept of kindness, with its depth and political potency, whether we can use it to edge us towards a society based on common good."

I very much welcome the theme of kindness for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The challenge remains how mental health can become the bridge for kindness to bring about better health outcomes for all, to reduce the inequity gradient and restore the value of community and collective welfare.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels