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Are your election candidates talking about relationships?


As politicians of all parties try to find ways of financing the NHS, there appears to be a consensus that it would be sensible to design a national Health service rather than a national Sickness service and to adopt a social model of health, rather than an illness model. So there’s been a lot of interest recently, in political and academic circles, in what keeps people healthy and happy, or what helps them cope with illness, especially chronic illness, if it occurs.

The argument that it is relationships that determine the quality of our lives, and our resilience in the face of hard times, seems unassailable. In terms of the Early Years Early Intervention agenda, there is a mountain of evidence to how that where mothers, fathers and families all pull together when a new baby arrives, the outcomes for maternal mental health and the wellbeing of the baby are optimal.

We would seem to be missing a trick, however, in terms of seizing the opportunity to help couples safeguard their relationship across the transition to parenthood. I was at a meeting recently where we were discussing the importance of offering relationship education to pregnant mothers and fathers. Yet, as we discussed the provision of antenatal classes in England, it was clear that the people coming to such sessions are predominantly women – either because it is made explicit by Hospital and Community Trusts that classes are for women only, or because classes are put on at times when men can’t attend. It seems very strange to accept the importance of relationship education and also that the transition to parenthood period is an ideal time to provide it, and then to accept that it will be delivered to only one half of the couple. We Brits aren’t very good at seeking help with our relationships, and the exclusion of men from this prime opportunity to discuss them seems to send out a strong signal that relationships are women’s business.

An excellent report from Relate and New Philanthropy Capital, ‘The Best Medicine? The importance of relationships for health and wellbeing’, published last month, quotes Gregor Henderson from Public Health England, saying, ‘As social beings, people rarely recover or deal with problems on their own’. The traditional model of the patient visiting the GP – whom he or she probably doesn’t know – for 7 minutes consultation in private, doesn’t begin to address the reality of people’s lives which is that they are experiencing their health problem within the context of their family and network of support. Similarly, a woman sitting alone in an antenatal group with other women doesn’t reflect the reality of becoming a mother in the context of a partnership, and a family that includes involved (or not-involved) grandparents, siblings, friends and employers.

So we need to be asking our electoral candidates: ‘What plans have you for reducing isolation in older people and in new mothers?’ ‘Where can people go to feel better about themselves?’ ‘How can you support the couple relationship across the transition to parenthood?’ ‘And the relationship between the person with Alzheimer’s and their carer?’ ‘What new facilities in our town do you want to see so that people can come together to share ideas, have a chat and feel that a problem shared is a problem halved?’ As the Relate document so rightly states, ‘All types of relationships can support our health, and we need to be mindful of this in policy and practice’.

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