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Mutual Aid and the kindness of strangers

In this fourth blog in a series for Mental Health Awareness week on the theme of kindness Amy Ramsay, Naomi Hartopp and Catherine El Zerbi talk about Mutual Aid and why they are so interested to find out more about what galvanizes community groups into acts of kindness.

As people are struggling with practical and economic challenges in their daily lives due to the current pandemic, it is likely that many are also feeling more isolated than usual. We know that there are strong links between social isolation and depression, and under the current UK lockdown measures, risks to mental health are likely to be increased, in part due to this social isolation.

Mutual Aid groups are local support groups in which people take responsibility for caring for one another.Their number has grown astronomically during the current pandemic and they allow for acts of kindness and solidarity within communities

As researchers who are interested in social isolation and mental health we want to find out if Mutual Aid groups can, alongside providing practical assistance, ease the burden on mental health during this time. Do they offer community solutions to problems that have so long been institutionalised?

Researching the impact of Mutual Aid groups

You have probably seen Mutual Aid groups spring up in your area as a response to the current crisis and perhaps you even belong to one. Local and supposedly autonomous, these groups were formed to help neighbours support each other through the COVID-19 lockdown, allowing people to offer and receive assistance. This can come in many forms including time, material goods or a friendly voice. Anyone can volunteer and anyone can ask for help: some do both.

The level of energy and appetite to participate in community support that we are currently seeing seems to be exclusive to times of crisis. We will be evaluating the many motivations for joining these groups and the experiences of their members. It’s important to understand the role that kindness plays in the movement and its impact on mental health. Recognising the importance of Mutual Aid groups during previous crises and the current pandemic, we have applied for and received funding from ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health to conduct a small study on the subject. Our team of researchers will be investigating whether belonging to, and participating in, these groups can reduce feelings of social isolation and build connection within local communities.

As qualitative researchers, we are looking forward to interviewing members of Mutual Aid groups to learn more about these community networks which have sprung-up over recent months. We want to begin to understand what giving and receiving support feels like when coming from those within our own neighbourhoods, and how this differs from that provided by charities or government bodies.

The term Mutual Aid is anarchist in origin, but do these groups challenge traditional ways of giving and receiving aid, or are they supporting or replicating existing hierarchal models? In their very name, Mutual Aid groups promise mutuality, but we are curious to find out whether this is something they can deliver, particularly in areas where there are large economic inequalities. Is the pandemic forcing many of us to learn kinder ways of supporting one another?

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The legacy of Mutual Aid groups post-pandemic

Through this study, we hope to better understand what happens to our sense of belonging when we join a Mutual Aid group, especially in areas where people are transitory. Does receiving your shopping from a neighbour make you feel more connected to your community? Can volunteering within your Mutual Aid group introduce you to new people? Might a phone call from a group member relieve loneliness or isolation? These are some of the questions that we will be asking in order to understand how community Mutual Aid groups function and what impact they can have on your mental health.

Mostly, we want to discover whether members of Mutual Aid groups feel that their neighbourhood networks might play a role in the post-COVID future, by their continued existence or in the ideas that their existence allowed to take form. Our hope then, for our research, for communities, and for these support groups, is that we learn how to harness this energy for community co-operation so that community support is not just a phenomenon of disasters and the current crisis, but a kinder, healthier way of life.

For more information on mutual aid groups across the UK you can visit the Covid-19 Mutual Aid website 

Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 18-24 May 2020. The theme is kindness.

The Authors:

Amy Ramsay is a researcher who is currently working on impact case studies for the REF.

Naomi Hartopp is a biologist who has recently submitted her PhD, and is currently working on case studies for the REF.

Catherine El Zerbi is a post-doctoral research assistant in the Psychological Medicine Department, currently leading on a music and mental health research project.

In this story

Catherine El Zerbi

Post Doctoral Research Associate

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