The psyCommons – Take 4 – a conference talk

Alliance for counselling and psychotherapy – Rally – Dec 2, 2012

The psyCommons – Denis Postle

The air we breathe, the radio spectrum, the oceans and the land we occupy – all these are commons – ‘common pool resources’ – they belong to us and – we belong to them.

This morning I want to introduce a new kind of commons – the psyCommons.

I’ll say a bit about what the psyCommons notion tells us about counselling and psychotherapy as institutions.

I’ll also say something about what the psyCommons – or psycommoning – might tell us about how counselling and psychotherapy could evolve.

I tend to be shy about self promotion, but you’ll find that most of what I am going to say is detailed in my new book Therapy Futures – Opportunities and obstacles. There is also this blog.

So.. the psyCommons… what is it?

To repeat – the air we breathe, the radio spectrum, the oceans and the land we occupy – all these are, or were, commons.

The psyCommons is an addition to this list.  It is a name for the universe of rapport – of relationship between people – through which we navigate daily life – it includes the beliefs, the preconceptions – and especially the learning from experience that we all bring to bear on our own particular corner of the human condition.

I’ll give you an example.

A mother and grandmother are walking home with young grandson who is riding his bike. At a pedestrian crossing he appears to be ignoring a bus that is approaching.  His mother shouts at him very loudly. He is very upset by this – An hour later the grandson is still very tearful because his mother had been so angry and had shouted at him. His grandmother says – listen, your mother wasn’t angry, she was afraid, she thought you were in danger. Hearing this, the grandson’s distress evaporates.

This is the psyCommons in action.

Here are a few more examples.

A family caring for one of their members as they slip into memory loss, delusions and tantrums. This means months and years of intense befriending – reporting – discussion and inquiry – This is the psyCommons.

People meeting together when someone dies, or when couples want to commit to each other, or to welcome a newborn – this is the psyCommons.

And a more personal example: an ageing couple trying to figure out how to shrink the scale of their lives – without losing too much of what matters to them – this also is the psyCommons

The psyCommons runs on rapport – on relationship – on being in touch with ourselves and others – figuring something out – learning from it – and applying the learning – that’s the psyCommons.

There are around 60 million people in this country – we get born, we survive parenting and schooling, we fall into and out of love – we develop enough or share enough savvy about what life offers, to get through it – some of us do it well, some of us do it badly. If we are to believe the statistics, around 45 million of us don’t seem to need help from the psychological professions.


This is part one of my story here today – that the myriad sharing with – living with – living opposite – or living alongside, other people, constitutes a commons.  It is, as I have already said – made of rapport.

As my colleague Andy Rogers has described it, the psyCommons is a pointer to a rich resource of ‘ordinary wisdom’ – and also, more controversially – ‘shared power’.

If this idea of a psyCommons has legs, why does it matter?

As I sat with this idea of a psyCommons – that belongs to all of us and to which we all belong – something clicked from the story of therapy professionalization.

In parallel with the history of the enclosures of common land in the UK and elsewhere – the psyCommons has enclosures.

In that insidious way that politics can be invisibly present in daily life – I began to see the psy professions, psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and counselling as enclosures of the psyCommons.

Enclosures are not a new phenomenon in this country. As David Bollier reminds us:  ‘by 1876, after 4000 acts of parliament, less than 1% of the population owned over 98% of the agricultural land in England and Wales.

If we think for a moment of the psyCommons as a territory, the psyprofessions fence off sectors of this territory, and claim ownership of them – and as Marxist economists would say – extract value from them through monopoly rents.

Harsh words you might think – but hasn’t the professionalization of counselling and psychotherapy in the last 20 years – the intense pursuit of privileged status through state endorsement – hasn’t this had the agenda of protecting and strengthening these enclosures of the psyCommons – and supposedly in the interests of protecting clients?

As this vision of the psyCommons and its psyEnclosures came more into focus, two other questions arose.

Why has so much energy been put into protecting these enclosures?

Might it be because in recent decades – via business, corporate and public service training, the knowledge and authority held in the professional psyEnclosures has increasingly escaped – it has diffused out into the psyCommons.  We’ll come back this in a moment.


Secondly, an even more uncomfortable aspect of these professional enclosures of the psyCommons emerged.

Where had our accumulated expertise and psyknowledge come from?

The answer – psychological knowledge has arisen from practitioner relationships with ‘clients’, ‘patients’, or ‘service users’. These relationships generate learning. Clients benefit from them and the psyprofessions accumulate knowledge and expertise from them.

I was shocked to realise that so far as any of us have been contributing to this accumulation – and especially – its professional exclusivity – we have been engaged in a form of mining. I began to see that for the professional enclosures had a hidden agenda –  the psyCommons was a resource to be mined.

This mining has been going on for at least a century. Raw experience has been extracted from client interactions be refined and distilled into a product or service – for which, as I mentioned earlier, as professionals, we can charge ‘monopoly rents’.

But isn’t this a societal norm? Isn’t such knowledge one of the products of civilisation?

Why does this mining matter?

It matters – I began to suspect – because historically, the psyEnclosures derive from, and reinforce a medical model of human functioning – and the knowledge sequestered in them (more in some than others) have together created a very tangible social category, ‘mental illness’ – ‘mental illness’ is a product of the professional psychological enclosures.

Being diagnosed as ‘mentally ill’ isn’t a trivial matter. While it can give access to important resources, it tends to be accompanied by a stigma that can function like a frontier between ‘illness’ and ‘health’.

I began to suspect that this stigma of ‘mental illness’ mirrors the boundaries between the professional psyEnclosures and the psyCommons – their exclusivity creates and reinforces a damaging alienation between people experiencing local, intense, but perhaps temporary difficulties – and the rest of the psyCommons population.


To summarise before I go on…

The psyCommons is a ‘common pool resource’ of our learning from experience – it is deformed and distorted by the enclosures generated and sustained by the psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counselling professions. These have for a century or more mined this learning from experience and trapped it in institutions that seek to, privilege, protect and profit from it. They contribute to generating and maintaining the societal category of ‘mental illness’.


What might this mean for the future of counselling and psychotherapy?

As the Occupy movement has pointed out, the sequestering of wealth by 1% of the population is unacceptable. I doubt if there are many more than 100,000 psy practitioners in the UK, a lot less than 1% of the population. Might not the psyCommons enclosures have their roots in the same historical, social and political antecedents?  And be just as inequitable?

I believe so.

And if I am correct, what can we do about it? How might this vision of a psyCommons point psychotherapy and counselling practitioners in a direction that would be more equitable – and that might bring renewal or refreshment?

The first thing is to acknowledge the scale of the psyCommons, it is a living, growing multitude – a rich ecology of negotiations, conversations, meetings with family, friends and co–workers, and innumerable affinity  groups – the myriad conversations of 60 million people in the UK.

And lest my purpose here be misunderstood, while the psyCommons is overshadowed by the enclosures of it, my intention here is to promote psyCommons flourishing. I want us to turn our attention away from protecting the enclosures towards sustaining and enhancing the ‘ordinary wisdom’ and ‘shared power’ of the psyCommons.

This is not to deny the importance of the severe local and current difficulties that many practitioners face and due economic pressures but I think it would be a great pity if, due to the need to maintain and defend the psyEnclosures, we were to miss or misconstrue where we are in social and political history.

Because as practitioners, due the advent of the internet, I believe we are living through a Gutenberg moment – a point in time analogous to the period when the church’s monopoly on the production of texts and, it is easy to forget – being able to read them – was broken.

Googling ‘panic attacks’ produces 28 million pages – ‘depression’ brings up 364 million pages (how much longer will this, to me very problematic category, survive?).

Internet resources have recently been invaluable to our family as we cope with the onset of dementia in a dearly loved relative.  As support for intense learning from experience the internet has been great and it has made the input from medical and social services seem archaic and irrelevant.

This is not to argue for some kind of technutopia – all technology amputates as well as extends human capacities – but I don’t think there is much doubt that the professional monopolies of expertise distilled from the psyCommons are being broken.

A post–professional psychological therapies culture that embraces the psyCommons is no longer a dream. I think the future is already here.


Earlier I gave examples of the psyCommons in action; I’ll end with a listing of some of the grassroots initiatives from within it – I hope they may serve as pointers for the refreshment renewal and evolutionof our field.

As Jennifer Maidman tells me, there are at least a 100,000 people in the UK in 12 step programmes  – Alchoholics Anonymous and alAnon etc – all these meetings have the form of a commons with organisation and governance that features shared power.

(BTW The Alliance for counseling and psychotherapy is a commons, this event has been organised and run by a commons – IPN, the Independent Practitioners Network is also a commons).

The website has addresses for more than a thousand self–help, survivor and support groups.

And then there is Mumsnet, a web site by parents for parents, with over 4 million visitors a month – I thought it was intriguing that the topic ‘am I being unreasonable?’ has over 1800 pages.

Family Lives – ‘listen, support and never judge’ – is a national charity providing help and support in all aspects of family life. ‘We’re here for you seven days a week and you can live chat with a trained support worker or share your story on our forums.’

The Hearing Voices Network,  has 180 groups in the UK for people who hear voices, see visions or have other unusual perceptions.

The Voice Collective is a similar resource for children and young people who hear, see and sense things others don’t.

Together: for mental well–being a charity that promotes peer support – and you couldn’t make it up – they are currently very  concerned about moves to professionalize peer support

Living Well, Dying Well  is a charity that trains doulas that specialize in compassionate and practical support at the end of life.

Altogether Better has used a major lottery grant to develop a network of community health champions across England, it also supports localities in the replication of the values and principles of the community health champion model. In West Yorkshire they have 17,000 community Health Champions.

Co–Counselling, has for 40 years taught a very effective self–directing approach to personal development – co–counselling was my point of entry into this work.

Welcome to the psyCommons.


(here are a few more community development groups that I know of)

Making Waves – challenging ideas about madness. A group of people with a range of experiences of mental distress who aim to use their skills and experience to challenge the prejudice that they face, and to promote new and innovative ways of supporting people and understanding what it is ‘to be mad’.
Kindred Minds held a free conference – Fire in our belly – Owning our power
for Black and minority ethnic Service Users/Survivors ONLY in November

Kindred Minds Pan–London Conference 19th November 2012

Canerows and plaits ‘Canerows and Plaits’ is a group of Sound Minds mental health service users in Wandsworth who are dedicated to improving local mental health provision for people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Wish a voice for Women’s mental health. Wish is a user led, women’s mental health organisation, which has been described as “The difference that makes a difference”. Wish prioritises ensuring women are at the heart of the organisation by consulting, listening and placing the power and direction of Wish with them.

Mind Out is a mental health service run by and for lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people. Based in Brighton and Hove, they provide local services as well as national initiatives. They provide advice, information, advocacy, a peer support group programme, and a food & allotment project.

Social Action for health is a community development charity, which works alongside marginalised local people and their communities towards justice, equality, better health and wellbeing.

Asset Based Community Development ABCD, describes itself as a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development.

Creative Commons License
The psyCommons blog by Denis Postle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: