A short guide to Citizenship

25th October 2017

What is Citizenship? Guest author Dr Michael Rowe of Yale University provides us with a short guide and an insight into some of the work currently happening in this area.

A guide to citizenship, short or long, should include a definition of it. My colleagues and I define citizenship as a measure of the strength of the person’s connection to the Rs of rights, responsibilities, roles, resources, and relationships that society offers its members through public and social institutions and association with others, and a sense of belonging that is validated by others. That’s a mouthful, I know. Sometimes we abbreviate our definition by starting with “Citizenship is a strong connection to the 5 Rs . . . ” But the “measure of” part suggests that citizenship is not just a thing you can point to—legal citizenship status, for example — but is a process, one that might bring you more or less robust citizenship status based on social or political conditions including social movements and advocacy, and on your own citizenship work.

Notice that I didn’t write “citizenship for people with psychiatric difficulties.” Citizenship is citizenship. “Psychiatric citizenship”—what would that be? Something less than full, robust, participating, empowered citizenship; otherwise why the qualification? That said, the focus of the research and interventions my colleagues and I have engaged in so far has been for and with people with psychiatric difficulties, including, for some, experiences of homelessness, substance misuse, incarceration, and other situations or conditions that compound the marginalization and social exclusion that people with psychiatric difficulties know.

Here are a few examples of the citizenship work we’ve taken up over the past twenty years:

  • Citizens, a community coalition that brought together people who were homeless, providers of mental health services, and other community members to advocate for community support for people embarking on the treacherous passage from homelessness to housing.
  • The Citizens Project, a six-month individual and group program with four moving parts: (1) non-traditional, participatory classes based on the 5 Rs and including many topics, from friendship and intimate relationships to housing to the Americans with Disabilities Act to how to exercise your rights and responsibilities in relation to mental health and criminal justice systems of care, and more; (2) community valued role projects, such as teaching police officers how to approach people who are homeless and having active symptoms in more helpful ways; (3) a student-led “What’s up?” discussion about people’s lives, what’s happening with them in their lives, not “just’ how they’re doing with their treatment or drug abstinence, although these are legitimate topics; and (4) wraparound peer mentor support. We’ve developed a full manual for starting citizenship projects.
  • Development of an individual measure of citizenship using community-based participatory research methods including training peer staff as researchers for all phases of the project; and later development of a citizenship tool for case managers to use in working with clients on their citizenship aspirations and goals.
  • Community-connection and community-organizing projects including Project Connect, which helps people build community connections through their passions and interests (connecting a musician with another musician in his or her community, and supporting them from that point on, as needed; and F.A.C.E.—Focused Acts of Connecting Every-day—which brings together people with and without psychiatric problems to build community through the process of meeting, discussing, and identifying activities of interest that all agree, as a group, to pursue (versus groups that start with set goals that may not come from the group and having which from the outset may slow the process of developing group identity and values.

There are more, including our current work with Scottish colleagues at Turning Point Scotland, Mental Health Foundation Scotland, the Scottish Recovery Network, and the University of Strathclyde, and peer activists to learn from and support each other in taking citizenship to scale in both countries. And a final word. I wrote above that “the focus of the research and interventions that my colleagues and I have engaged in so far has been for and with people with psychiatric difficulties . . . ” But if citizenship is citizenship, and support for citizenship makes most sense for people who are deprived of their rightful, and full, citizenship, it makes sense that sooner or later, the topic of solidarity with others who are deprived of citizenship—refugees, people living in deep poverty, people enduring racism, sexism, and other forms of exclusion and lack of recognition of their equal dignity and humanity—will come to the fore. Stay tuned, or better, tune in, as we say in the U.S.