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?