Power – PTM Framework
‘Power’ can have several meanings. Generally it means being able to gain advantages or privileges, to arrange things to meet your own interests; or being able to gain advantages or privileges for others, to arrange things to meet their interests.
Power can operate through our partners, families, friends, communities, schools, work, health services, the police, government and the media. Power can be used negatively; for example when people are hurt, excluded or silenced by others. It can also be used positively, such as when others protect and care for us.
There is a great deal of evidence that the negative use of power, both in the past and in the present, can lead to mental health problems. There is also evidence that we can be helped and protected by positive and supportive power.
Examples of the various kinds of power and the difficult events and circumstances that they can lead to, are given below. Some of them may apply to you.
Biological or embodied power is about our bodies and physical attributes. For example, we may enjoy strength, physical health, attractive appearance, sporting ability, and so on. On the other hand, we may experience physical limitations such as pain, disease, brain injury, disfigurement or disability.
Coercive power or power by force. Coercive power includes using aggression, violence or intimidation to make someone do things they don’t want to do or to frighten or control them. Examples include being beaten as a child, bullying in school, domestic abuse, forced psychiatric interventions, or being mugged or attacked.
On a wider scale, power by force happens in unsafe neighbourhoods, in systematic violence against certain groups of people, and in political conflict and war. Used positively, power by force can protect us from threats or dangers.
Legal power. The law is needed so that we can all live in a fair and peaceful society where our rights are protected. The law is also used to prosecute or imprison people or otherwise restrict their freedom, in order to protect the rest of society.
On the other hand, sectioning or coercion by Mental Health Law may be experienced as damaging, and sometimes the law fails to prosecute someone who has harmed you, or may not give equal rights to certain people or groups.
The welfare system is backed by legal power so that people can get the
benefits they are entitled to. However, the law can also be used to impose unfair or harmful policies on vulnerable people.
Economic and material power. Having enough money to live on, with good housing and enough to eat, is essential to our wellbeing. It also makes it easier to escape or change things we are unhappy with, to protect our families, and to access help and support when we need it.
Sometimes our financial security is at risk from others such as parents, partners,
landlords, public officials, or employers, who may have control over your finances, income, housing and possessions. Welfare systems and wider social and economic policies and structures can also create and maintain poverty and inequality.
Social or cultural capital refers to whether or not we have access to socially valued
educational, job training and leisure opportunities. It is also about whether we have, or know how to get, the knowledge and information we need to in order to live the life we want, and whether we benefit from social connections and a sense of social confidence and belonging in the society we live in.
All of these benefits can be passed on to the next generation. Without them, we may feel we are excluded from or don’t deserve various forms of influence and opportunity, such as jobs, education, healthcare and so on.
Interpersonal power. All of the other kinds of power can operate through relationships. In addition, our relationships offer important sources of security, support, protection, validation, love and connection. This helps to build a sense of identity about who we are, as individuals, and as members of families, social networks and wider communities.
Relationships with others, including family, colleagues, teachers, friends, neighbours, employers, healthcare staff, and public officials can also have negative aspects such as neglect, bullying, abuse, abandonment, invalidation, shame, humiliation, discrimination and so on. These experiences can impact on us and our sense of ourselves and our identities very negatively, especially if they occur in childhood.
Ideological power. This means power over meaning, language and ‘agendas.’ This is one of the least obvious but most important forms of power, because it is about our thoughts and beliefs.
Ideological messages, or ways of looking at ourselves and the world, can come
from a whole range of sources. Some examples are parents, social networks, schools, advertisements, healthcare staff, politicians and other public figures, as well as messages from the media, internet and social media.
Whether these messages are positive or negative, they are extremely influential, and can feel very difficult to challenge, partly because they are often accepted as normal and unquestionable. Ideological power includes:
● Power to create beliefs or stereotypes about your group. Our sense of identity draws partly on various social identities – for example, as women, men, trans, black or minority ethnic, as an older person, as someone with mental health problems, or intellectual or physical disabilities and so on. We may also be identified as member of a sub-group, such as people who receive benefits, or lone parents. All these overlapping identities can have both positive and negative aspects.
● Power to tell people, directly or indirectly, how they should think, feel, look and
behave in order to be an acceptable member of a group or of society. This can include almost anything, from the ‘right’ body size and appearance, to the ‘right’ lifestyle, the correct way to bring up children, express sexuality or religious beliefs, and so on. The further we are from fitting these standards, the harder it will be to develop a sense of confidence and self-worth.
● Power to silence or undermine you and/or your social group, for example through
criticism, trivialising, undermining, deliberate misinterpretation of your views,
intimidation, or sometimes by labelling you as ‘mentally ill.’ This can happen in direct contact with others, or indirectly through sources such as the legal system and the media.
● Power to interpret your experiences, behaviour and feelings and tell you what they mean. Ideally, children will be guided to develop their own understandings, beliefs and values. As adults, we may gain support from others who share our beliefs and worldviews. On the other hand, both children and adults can face silencing, invalidation, and having others’ views and feelings imposed on them. Telling people that their experiences of distress are due to a ‘mental illness’, even if they disagree, can be seen as an example.
This kind of power can work through many sources, including educational and social media material.