The Wood for the Trees
If you live in a neighbourhood with some shrubs and a few trees, you would not say you live in a forest. A forest is not just the presence of trees. While there is no precise number of trees that make up a forest, you know when you’re in one and when you’ve left and moved into another environment.
If you live your life with a small number of services and programmes that you have choice and control over, you would not say you live an institutionalised life. Institutionalisation is not just the presence of a few services and programmes that you have influence over; there is threshold, past which -at a certain scale; a certain intensity; and a certain number of service and programmes, you get defined out of your natural communities and become redefined as a client of multiple institutions.
At which point, to use the analogy of a few trees versus a forest, you no longer walk through a neighbourhood with lovely trees and shrubs, you are in a new environment, a forest. You too are changed, you come to be shaped by your environment, you are socialised into being a ’forest person’ (happy or not, a forest person nonetheless).
In the same way, if you or I spend life surrounded by institutions, even if not in one so to speak, in the classic sense of a sizeable grey-walled building, those institutions form a new environment, in much the same way that a forest habitat would.
If as a child, though I live at home with my mother, being supported solely by professionals from morning to night, then my home and community environment changes, into a forest of professionals. In turn, my self-image changes too, as do self-images of the unpaid people nearest me.
In the past, we saw some well-intended (and some not so well-intended) interventions that took people from their natural habitat and placed them in new sterile environments where they became institutionalised. Modern-day institutionalisation works differently – it often creeps up on people, in much the same way that saplings become trees, trees cluster into a grove and groves into a forest.
More institutional services do not always equal better. Indeed there is a threshold past which more becomes counterproductive and humanly and environmentally degrading. The law of diminishing returns kicks in where ever-increasing institutional interventions lead to ever-diminishing returns until, eventually, they produce the very opposite of what they intended.
Choice, control, small scale and genuine community alternatives must be at the front end of sound social policies. The measure of a good life is not a forest of dependable services; at the expense of interdependence in diverse natural communities.
Generally, people want a life, not just a service or multiples of; a community with unpaid reciprocal connections, with services there to supplement.
The forest of institutionalisation has encroached on all our lives to a greater or lesser extent. So much so that many reflexively think care is the relentless provision of multiple ongoing services till the person is fixed, cured, reformed, educated. Instead, it is no more than an endless futile attempt to command and control nature.
It is time to see the wood for the trees; the trees from the forest, and to acknowledge that not all woodlands are natural or benign. Everything in good measure!