By Dr Robyn Vesey
The closure of the charity Kids Company after the government withdrew its annual £5m funding and private donors withdrew their support has received much media attention1. Indeed what has occurred has not just been reported and centred in the media spotlight, but has occurred as a result of media reports. This means that the emotional reactions and the way the story has been told have been key and active elements in its closure.
Under the sway of strong emotions it can be difficult to think clearly, keeping in mind all aspects of the situation. Using a systems psychodynamic approach to these issues can bring to light the unbearable and sometimes overwhelming situations we often prefer not to face. Moving away from the extremes of emotional reactions and acknowledging the mixed and complex realities is essential for compassionate and effective service provision.
The closure of the charity Kids Company and cutting of its services, described as a vital life-line by many of the people involved, have evoked significant emotional reactions. Anger, despair, grief. Equally strong are the emotions evoked by those convinced that the charity had brought its ending on itself – anger, blame and moral outrage.
For some the emotional reactions have centred around key figures, such as Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company. For others the reactions play out against the faceless, such as the government cabinet office, the media and social services. How can we understand and respond to such intensely emotional events that occur in our society? And how can we understand their causes, and their impacts within the complex relationships in our social systems?
Organisations that do a particular kind of work, whether in the public sector (e.g. social services departments) or the charity sector, evoke emotional reactions to do with their work. Any organisation that works with children and young people who are vulnerable and who have experienced some kind of deprivation – whether material or emotional – evokes a compassionate wish to help, as well as admiration for those who do such work.
The charity Kids Company had been positioned as a heroic project, and was described as a ‘national treasure’ by Mary Dejevsky2. However, there is also anxiety experienced by those within and outside the organisation of being overwhelmed and exploited by those in need. Of being taken for a ride by those who don’t really need what they say they do.
In addition to these strong emotions it can feel like a difficult, thankless and frustrating task to be faced with needs and requests that cannot all be met, and the pull to begin to dismiss people’s needs can be strong because of this feeling. Of course, it is a reality that any service that is not based on a business model (i.e. the service is offered in exchange for a price and upon this basis any concern about ‘deservingness’ is resolved) is open to potential exploitation.
What is striking is how little ‘middle ground’ there seems to be in these issues, how one must either be for or against, and how this is the case not only for those involved, but for wider society’s emotional responses and shared narratives. It is through intense shared emotional reactions that the power of media reports and the repercussions of damaged reputation gain their potency.
The psychology of these reactions is the same for all of us, from the service user in anguish, to the politician commenting by video link, from the member of staff offering to continue on a voluntary basis, to the journalist reporting investigations that claim to ‘lift the lid’. Something makes it difficult to see the shades of grey and stay in touch with the mixed good and bad of everyday reality.
This is not a new observation, it was proposed by Melanie Klein in 19463 and has been developed by psychoanalysts, with echoes in other psychological theories, since then. Fundamentally, when reality becomes unbearable through threat, attack, anxiety or pain we shift towards an extreme way of thinking – splitting the world into good and bad.
We can only think and relate in extremes, and crucially, act as if others hold all the responsibility and blame. Such is the nature of much of the talking about this charity and services in this sector, as we have witnessed in the time leading up to and since the Kids Company closure.
Working with an unbearable reality
It is not surprising that there is extreme thinking in this area, because in addition to the strong emotional reactions to the work outlined above, services for disadvantaged children holds our most human and fundamental anxieties.
We have all been children once. We respond with anxiety when we hear about the unbearable realities of children who are not protected from harm, of parents who – whether it’s through drug use, absence from work, poverty, or mental health problems – are not offering their children the parenting we would want for ourselves as children, for our children and for others. We want there to be a solution, or maybe we want someone to blame and the idea of reality that has moments of joy and calm, as well as moments of abuse and neglect, is very difficult.
It is very difficult to bear the emotion of this mixed reality – the mother who has genuine feelings of love for her child and can be kind and generous, and who also neglects her child through alcoholism. The mixed reality of a young man who feels excluded and powerless from both society and from friendships, and who also chooses not to control his sexual desires and respect the consent of his under-age girl-friend. And yet this mixed and messy humanity exists across social, economic and political dimensions.
To work with such a reality, rather than to deny it, is to be vulnerable to the strongest of emotional reactions – to become either a hero or a villain, but nothing in between. Of course there is a reality to the content: either the charity gained agreement from the government that their £5m funding gap could be covered from elsewhere, and that their £3m ‘restructuring’ grant could be partly spent on staff wages… or it did not. Either a person was subjected to sexual activity without their consent on the premises… or they were not. Yet, such content quickly becomes both distorted by, and a trigger for, intense emotional reactions and this can lead to extremes in thinking and in blame that become part of the problem.
When the extreme thinking takes hold and the players are split into good or bad, there is denial of the ambiguity and complexity in real life situations and so it is much more difficult to deal with them. The question of what should be funded, how and by whom is a real question to be grappled with in this time of government cuts in public spending.
In real life there is ambiguity and nuance of relationships with service users and with funders. In real life there are complexities and shared responsibility for failings and resource limitations. When we as individuals working in services, as journalists and as tax-payers become out of touch with the reality of everyday life, we let someone else think about the provision of services and these limitations, casting off responsibility – as if it is enough to have someone write the cheque – no matter how generous or inadequate it is for the task.
It is very human to think about such difficult issues in this way, as if they are simple and we know who are the heroes and who are the villains. Camila Batmanghelidjh herself has taken on a larger-than-life role in the charity and its services, as a charismatic leader taking on the responsibility to respond to children in very difficult situations through charity and fund-raising. Espousing a new way of approaching such work, and undoubtedly harnessing the energy of a personal commitment from her staff to work within this approach, her uniqueness and hero status meant that she was encouraged to manage a service without the constraining aspects of the public sector.
Too quickly a split of public sector all-bad, charity sector all-good was evident in the system. And, as often with the cult of leadership – a hero leader has become cast as a villain when the extreme thinking sets in that a leader must be one or the other. There have been a number of dimensions to the organisational issues raised, such as failing to provide a service which is: comprehensive; evidenced with outcomes or financially sustainable without ongoing reliable income – what might it mean to understand such failures as part of a mixed, messy and wider reality, rather than locating ‘failure’ in one organisation, one person or one social group?
It is painful to acknowledge our own sense of guilt, responsibility and powerlessness in the face of violence, tragedy and suffering. This requires containment, the careful digestion or processing of those unbearable feelings through relationship with others4, containment that requires some kind of dependency and stability.
Systems can be set up in a way that is more likely to offer containment, and in a way that is less likely to do so. The toll of instability in funding, constantly having to ask and succeed at raising the funds is cited by its founder as an unsustainable burden. It is this instability in the funding environment around Kids Company that both literally, and also psychologically, led to its closure, because an unstable environment leaves an organisation with additional challenges to be itself stable.
Whilst financial management, evaluated outcomes and comprehensive services are important, they are inevitably subject to multiple complex and uncontrollable factors, which need to be discussed in a relationship that acknowledges complexity rather than uses these things as weapons. The quality of the relationships an organisation has with its key funders and stakeholders are complex, and will be themselves more or less containing, and more or less conducive to managing emotional extremes that may be experienced by those offering and those funding the service.
The link remains across all levels of the system: containment is an experience that many of the people seeking help from Kids Company have not had available to them in their emotional development. Therefore, providing containment is a key task and challenge for any organisation attempting to offer such services, precisely because the issues people bring tend towards splitting and extremes.
The emotional extremes surrounding the charity and its closure have a deeper message – that there are unbearable realities of children in need, limited services and exploitation – and that if each of us, in whatever position we hold, take up these emotional extremes we prevent the thoughtful consideration of the realities. Consideration of these realities and the dilemmas they pose are both urgent and necessary to create intelligent and kind5 services for social well-being.
- Klein, M. (1946). Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 27:99-110.
- Bion, W. R. (1962). A theory of thinking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 43: Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
- Ballatt, J. & Campling, P. (2011) Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare, published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.