Communitas: an idea on how we move through distress in mutuality

After the best part of 17 months in and out of psychiatric wards, where I had been ‘classified’ by the words that we refer to as psychiatric ‘diagnosis’, I was invited to go and stay in a housing community. Little could I have known when I was first put in a psychiatric ward as the ‘treatment’ for my condition (s), it would be in a housing community of ‘classified’ souls, that I would find some sense of Communitas and ultimately experience existing in relation to others and find a place in the world.

There are plenty of ways to understand the experience. One such way is reflecting on the concept of Communitas, a concept spoken about by Victor Tuner among many others. Communitas, a Latin noun usually referring either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or the spirit of community. Turner was interested in the interplay between what he called social 'structure' and 'anti-structure'; Communitas as well as liminality can both be considered parts of an anti-structure.

What of Communitas and mental health? We could think of those in distress as passing through an experience, being between agreed social structures. Mental Health diagnosis and pathologizing ideas place people betwixed and between the structures or society in a sort of anti-structure.

People can become liminal in their process of ritual and observance of a rite of passage that others might refer to as madness, ‘mental illness’ or a state of ‘disorder’ behaviours that are temporary and necessary in the context life situation and events.

The ‘classification’ of being disordered is harmful. This is personified by the more sinister environment of the mental health act. Individuals temporarily elude classification other than to be become threshold people or liminal personae and are temporarily stripped of worldly status and privilege (Turner, 1967).

What does Communitas offer in way of understanding people in mental distress? How can we choose not to use labels and structures and thus avoid stripping people of worldly status and enshrining them to the experience of being liminal? We could draw on the work of Jackson (2012) in considering the existential imperative that identifies it to be ‘crucial to the human psyche in that people need to tell others that they exist, otherwise they disappear into existential oblivion’.

In understanding the existential imperative, to be able to communicate that we exist, we can avoid creating environments or structures that place a person betwixed and between. We can avoid creating the experiences where a person experiences liminality when a person expresses anti-structure or ritualistic approach to surviving.

Understanding how a Communitas can provide equity between persons, specifically cease to control the anti-structure, highlights the problems in environments as the problems we face in which prejudice and misuse of power, through privilege of the ‘structures’, create the conditions for liminality.

Returning to the housing community I was fortunate to reside in: there was little interest between residents or staff in the labels that had been handed to us by Psychiatry. Embracing that we did not need to be brought back into the structures, rather it was accepted that we were expressing ‘anti’ to the notional way of being and we could be heard in our communication that we existed within Communitas.

The goal of mental health systems for so long has been to rehabilitate or return to the societal norms. But it was Communitas that would emerge within the housing community, allowing us to begin to communicate to one another in that housing community that we existed.

Among those living in the community house, there was little interest or care in the diagnostic labels or the structures that were perceived by those in power to be ‘normal’. Instead, there was creativity and ritual in abundance, and this served to communicate to one another that we existed. Once we found Communitas the potential to exist, not just in terms of communication, became more possible.

Whilst most mental health approaches remain focussed on the labels, ‘treatments’ and requirements for individuals to understand the communication from the professionals, families and ‘supporters’, we could begin to understand communication with a person in distress as being the person communicating as a display that demonstrates they exist.

We need to listen deeply, be creative in our willingness to hear and witness the communication from the person in distress if we are to experience Communitas that was the small housing community. This of course creates an anti-structure for the listener and thus may require them to experience liminality themselves.

The invitation is always present to be in Communitas with the liminal person. It is the narratives of the structures that preclude the ‘professional’ or ‘supporter’ the possibility of Communitas, not the person who is expressing distress. When we can acknowledge that structures creates unequal environments it is through mutual vulnerability, but with the same existential imperative, that we may find Communitas as a mutual experience between a person and a ‘supporter’.

This short blog is dedicated to a dear friend and member of the Communitas who would ultimately communicate in way that lives inside me more than 20 years later. His communication was of equal in its importance as all the others. Rest well dear friend.

Ball, M., & Picot, S. (2021). Dissociachotic: Seeing the non-psychosis we share. Journal of Humanistic Psychology,1-8.

Jackson, M. (2012). Between one and one another. University of California Press.

Turner, Victor Witter. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press.

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