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Mental health and welfare: a stamping manifesto

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The tendency not to want to believe in mental illness festers across the Western world, and particularly in Britain, the nation that gave us Shakespeare, concentration camps and the stiff upper lip. From the friends and families of sufferers to the upper echelons of government, the suspicion that mental health difficulties are forms of weakness – simple personality flaws that could be eradicated if more of these mentalists would jolly well buck up – informs policy and influences behaviour. We need to look this institutional prejudice in the face and call it what it is: outdated, destructive and desperately unhelpful.

Over the past few months, I have interviewed a great many people suffering from mental health difficulties in the course of my work for the Independent and for One in Four magazine, and none of them are feeling optimistic about the New Year. All of them fear being forced back into work that they will not be able to cope with even if they find it; they fear government interference with benefits that they rely on for survival, and they are disappointed at the lack of positive changes the much-touted Welfare Reform Bill has brought.

In the face of what appear to be across-the-board rises in cases of serious depression, anxiety and other debilitating disorders, the response of our government in boom times has been to quietly shunt the sick onto a government poverty package and tell us to be grateful. However, as incapacity levels continue to rise, the DWP’s new Work to Welfare policy threatens to shunt us just as quickly back to the jobcentre, telling us that we’re scroungers who were actually making it up all along. This comes just as the little glut of crap menial jobs available before the stock market crash has disappeared. Nice timing, Purnell.

Many of the 40% of Britain’s 2 million IB claimants who are unable to work due to mental health difficulties already have a few problems with paranoia. But, as the noted social theorist Kurt Cobain observed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not after you. Because when any major political party talks about moving people off Incapacity Benefit, when they talk about instituting a system of interviews to ‘weed out’ benefit ‘scroungers’, we know that they’re talking about the mentally ill – those whose disabilities and challenges are most difficult to see and to quantify, often the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who have since Thatcher’s day been the first in the firing like when budget cuts needed to be made. I am, indeed, talking about Care in the Community, the policy decision also known as ‘chuck the nutter in the gutter’.

Yes, there are more people receiving IB now than there were a generation ago. No, this does not mean that all of the extra people are skivers who’d rather sit around watching Trisha and drinking milkshakes. The sweeping social change that has transformed society in the past fifty years has led to an increase in the numbers of those deemed unable to work due to mental illness for many reasons. Not only has society become more treacherous and unpredictable and the working world more stressful (especially in stonkingly pro-market, anti-worker countries which exempt themselves from working time directives) but more men and women are expected to hold down full-time jobs which are increasingly focused in the service, information and fourth-sector industries, meaning that it’s more important for these employees to be entirely mentally and emotionally on the ball. Simply put: as the labour market is changing and becoming more mentally and physically stressful, the mentally ill, whose care has been successively eroded by government after neoliberal government, are being left out in the cold.

Mental illness is perhaps the subtlest and most frightening of all forms of social difference, because of its invisibility, because of the difficulty in quantifying it, and because it is not a binary condition: you’re not either mad or sane, there’s a whole spectrum involved. But the hatred and fear that the mentally ill face on a daily basis, the lack of understanding shown to them by the welfare state and criminal justice system, and the fact that they are perpetually the first targets of punitive budget cuts, adds up to a sum of institutional bias which belongs in a previous century.

Just look at Mind’s recent report on mental illness within parliament itself. Twenty-seven percent of MPs, Peers and their staff have personal experience of mental health difficulty, and one in three said work-based stigma and the expectation of a hostile reaction from the media and public prevented them from being open about mental health issues. This is a problem that touches everyone, and it isn’t going to go away if we collectively stick our fingers in our ears and sing a little song.

Employment law is another area where the Disability Discrimination Act has so far failed to translate into action when it comes to the mentally ill. The argument goes something like this: it’s more risky and more costly for company x to hire person y if they suffer from a mental illness – after all, how is company x to know that that employee y won’t fall behind on their work, start slicing themselves up by the water-cooler or march into the office one day spraying slugs of hot lead death into co-workers and clients? Simple ignorance is the first obstacle to greater understanding here: in fact, the mentally ill are statistically less likely to perpetrate violent crime, and far more likely to become victims of it. But a subtler prejudice against minorities is inherent to the hypercapitalist machine – because yes, it is technically less costly for a firm to hire an individual who is entirely mentally well. By the same logic, it is also better business sense to hire someone who is neither physically disabled nor a female of childbearing age. Yes, these people represent a financial risk to the company; no, this doesn’t mean that discrimination is a logical and acceptable consequence of that risk.

What happens when companies are allowed to set their own hiring policies purely on the basis of business sense is that a large amount of the nation’s talent remains untapped, and swathes of people who need to be in work more than almost anybody become dependent on the state. Individuals suffer, and the entire economic community suffers. Anti-discrimination legislation and hiring standards are not only essential for the advancement of true equality; they advance free nations both spirituality and economically.

The market, by itself, cannot deliver health, happiness and universal suffrage by treating people as commodity inputs. This is why, especially in a period of social transition like this one when our ideals and our economic and technological mores so often clash, government intervention is one of the only logical temporary solutions.

It is not enough for the Ministry of Plenty Department for Work and Pensions to demand that mentally ill recipients of incapacity benefit find themselves a job in an employment market which was highly suspicious of them in the boom times and which is now rapidly contracting. What we need if we are to avert a genuine crisis both in employment and in public health is a radical restructuring of what it means to be a worker in the information age.

It is also not enough just to whinge about current policy without suggesting viable alternatives. We’re not just holding jobs and having dinner: the point of progressive debate is to work out how to create the better world that we want our descendants to inherit. So, what would a world with fewer stigmas against the mentally ill look like?

It would be a world in which employers and businesses recognise that mental disability, like physical disability, does make it more of a challenge for an employee to carry out a job of work – and that those challenges can be surmounted with understanding and reasonable adjustments Fifty years ago, the idea of having ramps on public transport, in offices and public buildings in order to help the physically disabled participate in normal life would have sounded preposterous and wildly costly – now it is more or less accepted that the physically disabled have just as much drive to work and live as the rest of us, and should be aided in that goal. The same attitude needs to be applied across the board.

It would be a world in which flexible and part-time working is not only available but a respected and well-taken up practice required of all employers, in order to help the mentally disabled, the physically incapacitated and those with caring duties, including parents, to stay in appropriate work. It would be a world in which part-time work is supported by government benefits, allowing the hundreds of thousands of people with mental health difficulties who cannot cope with full-time work to participate more fully in the economic and cultural life of the nation.

It would be a world in which the many laudable grants, higher education places, work schemes and training projects set aside specifically for the physically disabled and other minorities are matched by similar schemes for the mentally and emotionally disadvantaged.

Last but not least, it would be a world in which, for as long as necessary, large businesses were obliged to take on a set quota of people with mental health difficulties – say one in eight, helping to reflect the one in four citizens who will experience mental health difficulty at some point in their life.

This is about socialism, but it isn’t just about socialism. It’s about creating a world that is fairer and more efficient, carrying every citizen with it. If the government really wants to leave no one behind – if it wants to move more of the mentally ill into rewarding, taxpaying work, rather than simply pare more fat from the already scrawny welfare state – we need to dare to dream of a society in which everyone can participate.

******

And with that, I’m going to go and excercise another of my dysfunctional coping mechanisms and have a little cigarette. I’d offer, but you wouldn’t want one. It’s fucking menthol *cackles*.

Hope and Humbuggery: a Christmas tantrum.

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This sucks.

I’ve just arrived back from my mum’s place and been greeted with a bollocking HUGE gas bill that we have only a slim chance of paying, plus a plumbing system that’s still buggered to the tune of having to wash my hair and essential parts in the sink, with a saucepan. All this, and scrabbling to prepare for a parental visit: clean, fumigate, hide the S’M posters, hide the ashtrays, hide the kingskins, hide our same-sex partners, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll make 2009 intact.

At this most magical time of the year, I truly pity the undeserving souls who work in call centres. Having been on the line to a dogged unresponsive pissed-off hack for half an hour, you could hear a festering note of impending armaggedon in the weary British Gas man’s voice when he asked if he could keep me informed of any new products and services.

Talking of festering Armageddon, does anyone else feel like we’re approaching the end times?

Maybe it’s just me. But in the latter months of 2008, it’s become far less easy to be a freak in this country. The black dog of recession is crunching us in its bloody jaws and, unlike the States, we don’t have any liberal saviour preaching change who we can clutch at, whispering save us. The government is clamping down on everybody, no matter where they live or why. The poor, single parents and the mentally ill are going to suffer under the new welfare plan. The atmosphere in Whitehall is one of stunned denial, with ministers emerging over the ramparts to frantically fire desultory, mean sallies such as today’s announcement that bailiffs will be given new powers to enter debtors’ homes at will, physically restraining or pinning down the occupants if necessary.

Will Monaco and Jersey swarm with smart-suited Scrooges wearing knuckle-dusters?
Will hired muscle be sent to collect billions of pounds’ worth of debt from Britain’s richest tax-dodgers, like Philip Green? Will members of the treasury, recently found owing £645bn which my generation will have to stump up for in our middle age, be turfed out onto the street in their scanties? Nah, thought not. Once again, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are being targeted by this supposed people’s government, this government that promised us change, transparency, a new world order. Maybe that’s why Obamania is failing to cheer us up: we’ve heard this line before.

Meanwhile, in Vatican City a nominally celibate former Hitler Youth member in a dress has a Christmas message of goodwill and peace in our time. Yup, Ratzinger wants to defend holy heterosexuality from the despicable ‘gender blurring’ perpetrated by gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and women who don’t sit with their knees together in church:

‘We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and asks that this order is respected.

“This is not out-of-date metaphysics. It comes from the faith in the Creator and from listening to the language of creation, despising which would mean self-destruction for humans and therefore a destruction of the work itself of God.”

I would like, at this point, to swallow the greater part of the Fuck The Pope tirade that was going to be my inevitable next outburst and instead point Herr Ratzinger towards the roll-call of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christian saints recently enumerated by activist scholars, amongst them Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Sebastian and ooh, wouldn’t you credit it, Saint George, patron of this blinkered isle.

I apologise for the unseasonal amount of bile and hatred in this post. Believe me, behind this cold, hard exterior twitters the pink and fluffy heart of a perpetual six-year-old who bounces out of bed at 5am on Christmas morning and dreams in sugarplums and fairy lights. But behind that is the chill adult realisation that we’re going to have to take the long road home. 2009 will be a hard, hard year, we didn’t need the IMF to tell us that. The rest of this beautiful, broken, brilliant decade is going to entail threats to socialism, liberalism and freedom of thought and action from all sides, with governments offering no quarter and giving none. Those of us brave enough to weather the distance, those of us with the strength and temerity to hold on to our liberal ideals, will need everything we’ve got to keep the hope in our heads alive.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. [Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’]

And that’s my Christmas message. Hope, if nothing else: hope, because that’s all we’ve got, that we will come through this with our sanity and our integrity, everyone: the poor, the young, the mentally ill, the geeks, the freaks, the queers and their allies, the feminists and race-activists and socialists and war protesters and those who dare to dream of a better and a fairer world. When we have nothing else but hope, we will have to find the energy from somewhere to keep on getting out of bed, keep on striving, keep on thinking for ourselves. I’m certainly going to keep on writing; I hope you’ll keep on reading. Thank you all for keeping up with this blog over the past year, and please believe me when I wish you, whatever your faith, a merry Christmas.

The writing’s on the wall.

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You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them – George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

I am seriously considering whether the best use of my time would be to torch myself on the steps of Parliament in protest – Withiel Black Esq., this morning.

I am angry, today.

But Ms Red, I hear you cry, you are quite often angry. Well, yes, that’s so, but today I’m bloody angry, angry for a reason. I am sitting in a house from which my current family and I may soon be evicted, because we have failed to make our rent. We have failed to make our rent because we have failed to gain employment, we are paying off debts, and the pissingly tiny amount of benefits to which we are entitled have failed to arrive. We are spending our time watching ripped downloads off the interwebs and living on fried potatoes and tea and cigarettes re-rolled from the butt-ends of what we’d imagined our futures would be.

We’re in our early twenties; the whole world is ahead of us, but a recession-bitten employment market and an increasingly punitive welfare system are making the immediate world look grim. It’s going to be worse, still, for those friends of ours who are due to leave school or university this year and take their first faltering steps into a world that won’t let them work and can’t afford to keep them. This is not romantic. Poverty and hopelessness are not romantic. They’re a fucking pain, is what they are.

When I met James Purnell in September he was half-cut, coming out of a party and manifestly didn’t want to be talking to the small insistent girl reporter in black, but he took the time to explain to me why he thought his welfare reforms were going to help the poor and incapacitated. He genuinely impressed me. He knew his stuff. Three months on, with the recession steaming in and all my friends and loved ones poor and depressed and rejected by a nominally caring Labour welfare state, I’m beginning to think we’ve been had. I have a visceral fondness for energetic, hobbit-looking men, but not when they instruct the poor and needy to bend over and spread for a rogering, telling them in breathless pants that it’s for their own good. Let’s take a look at that party line:

Myth: ‘work is the best way out of poverty.’

Fact: work is the best way out of poverty provided that there is work available, and provided that that work does not pay a poverty wage. Most of the journalists and politicians smugly licking Purnell’s shiny arse on this one are lucky enough to have well-paid, fulfilling careers. But have you ever worked as a fast-food waitress? Have you ever worked in a call centre? You spend nine solid hours in a cramped, light-sputtering cage being bullied by your bosses and harassed by people who didn’t ask you to call and harangue them. The work is soul-eatingly dull and draining and when you come home, blinking, dried-out, feeling ancient and depressed, you have to do it all again tomorrow, and you are still poor. You are still poor because you are being paid way below what might constitute a living wage, and you have no career prospects to keep you motivated. You get to choose between this and staying on benefits, being ever so slightly more crushingly poor but more physically and mentally well. What will you choose? (NB: call centre work is the only work many school leavers and graduates in the cities are currently able to find).

Myth: There is work there for people, and we believe they should do it. We can’t afford to waste taxpayers’ money on people who are playing the system. [Purnell]

This recession is not the fault of the poor. It is the fault of well-off wankers who live in large houses and go on holidays to Majorca, and now that the proverbial has hit the proverbial, nobody wants to take responsibility. Treating people like criminals for failing to find jobs that aren’t there is kicking us while we’re down. And that is what ‘”a system where virtually everyone has to do something in return for their benefits” means. Yes, it’s right that people take responsibility for their own lives – but what creates poverty, worklessness and drug and alcohol abuse is not moral decline, it’s social and economic decline, and that’s the fault of governments and the fault of a financial and business sector which sees no reason to look after its workforce in any way whatsoever.

The alleged lack of virtue of the working classes is now being exploited in order to offload the blame for what this Labour government has done – over 2 million unemployed, a toppling economy, another million so mentally and emotionally incapacitated that they cannot work. The idea that people without jobs are lazy, exploitative, ungrateful and engage in piffling class-defined vices places the blame for ‘Broken Britain’ on a group of people who have less to do with it than anyone else. The political and financial classes refuse to take responsibility for where they have landed us, and are now telling us that it’s our fault, because we are just not trying hard enough.

Don’t for a moment imagine that the Tories are planning anything better. In fact, as David Cameron’s latest editorial in the Hate shows, Tory contempt for the poor is if anything more shameless and ingrained than frantic Labour scapegoating could ever be: Cameron and his gang believe that the poor are lazy, and should be punished lest they all turn out like ‘evil’ Karen Matthews. As Matthew Norman puts it in the Indy, it takes a rich man to pour such scorn on the poor.

But I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough with trying so very, very hard to be a Labour apologist out of fear of the Tories. The Labour DWP’s strategy is not just not good enough: it’s actively immoral, scapegoating the neediest and making it more difficult for us to work and live just at the time when we should be carrying our wounded.

Fuck you in the fucking eyes, Purnell. It just saddens me that by the time that you see the wrong end of a dole queue in 2010, it’ll be way too late for you to help even yourself.

Welfare reform: what’s the deal now?

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Ooh, James Purnell. Those kindly eyes, that roguish smile, that cheeky little pro-war voting record. He can call me any time, but meanwhile, guys and gals, let’s satisfy our post-adolescent political lust by calling the Secretary on welfare reform.

The national drive towards reform of the benefits system has been gathering momentum over the past 18 months, with the pace stepping up from January when the Conservative party released ‘Work for Welfare’, a short proposal for some pretty draconian reforms to the current welfare state where all ‘able bodied’ men and women would be expected to work (the fact that one in four claimants of incapacity benefit are severely mentally ill clearly does not register with tory stiff-upper-lippers). Hot on the heels of this report came Purnell’s green paper, the rather more progressively titled ‘No One Written Off: Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility.’ Cue a tiresome little inter-party squabble with a lot of bitchy back-handing to the BBC over just whose idea it was to bring the British welfare system into the 21st century.

On first reading, both reports advocate a greater emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for and ‘earning’ their own benefits; both want to encourage more people into work and provide better checks to do so; both want a clearer distinction between the genuinely needy and those relatively able to work, those whom a medieval government might have called ‘sturdy beggars’. The net effect of the reforms is that in October 2008 a new Employment and Support Allowance will be introduced for new claimants of Incapacity Benefit and other benefits before being rolled out to all recipients.

There, the similarity between the proposals ends. It must be made absolutely clear that Purnell’s green paper treads an extremely fine line between positive reforms that empower people to work and victimisation and further isolation of already poor and vulnerable sections of society. For now, in the months pre-instigation, the proposals come through relatively successfully, with welcome additions such as a long-overdue simplification of the benefits claiming system, making it easier for genuinely needy claimants to access vital support. Until you’ve sat up with a severely physically and emotionally disable friend and watched them crying in frustration as they try to fill out the forms, you may not understand quite how vital this particular change is. The old system was designed to be complex in order to discourage fraudsters from bothering; the new system will build in more proactive checks. And about bloody time too.

The tory proposals, on the other hand, are replete with the rhetoric of disdain for the poor and needy. In the conservative worldview, people need to be stopped at all costs from ‘playing the system’; the government has a ‘moral right’ to ‘protect families’, the practical upshot of which is tax benefits for married couples, as if a silver ring ever solved anything. Quite apart from the fact that Labour’s report is massively longer and more in-depth, quite apart from the fact that it answers the conservative challenge with the diligence of a progressive government purposefully handling the difficulties of practical power, we cannot – simply cannot – have tory hardliners like Chris Grayling in charge of this delicate transitional period in the benefits system.

This welfare reform package is one that can only be successfully implemented by a socially aware, self-policing socialist party of the type that, at its best, Labour tries to be. Conservatives such as Grayling have claimed that Purnell’s proposals are a ‘straight lift’ from tory plans; they are not. If anything, the latest proposals represent a visionary re-working of a policy which, under the Tories, would further criminalise the working classes and drive hundreds of thousands into poverty, debt, addiction and despair.

Because the tories have far less idea even than the incumbent government of what real poverty really means. You can’t say ‘credit crunch’ with out baring your teeth into a snarl, and it’s going for the throat of benefit recipients trying to live on £40 per week. MPs demonstrating ‘belt-tightening’ by not demanding increases on their sixty grand salaries live in an entirely different world from people on JSA and Incapacity Benefit. The welfare state was never designed, as the tories claim, to allow ‘a young man to grow up’ knowing that ‘the state will support him’ whatever choices he makes: if you live on benefits, you are poor. Very poor, and you’ll stay poor unless your circumstances change. A life lived on benefits is a life on the breadline, a life replete with stress and starved of reward and acheivement, a life in many respects half-lived. The vast majority of people on state benefits are keen to return to work – the problem, is that many face tremendous obstacles in obtaining and retaining employment.

The conservatives’ mantra of small government, of decreasing state support in every arena in favour of ‘the family,’ will be massively detrimental to the real good that has been done in moving millions of people off benefits and over the poverty line in the past decade. David Cameron believes that:

‘The primary institution in our lives is the family. It looks after the sick, cares for children and the elderly, supports working people and the unemployed’ –

Woah there. Reading between the lines, doesn’t that mean that families should be doing the work of the state, just like they did in the pre-industrial era? Well, presumably they’re planning to reward domestic work financially, then, aren’t they, and take massive social steps to encourage social cohesiveness within all family structures, and provide equal benefits for civilly-partnered homosexual couples and married straight couples alike? No? Or, just for instance here, could it be another strategy to shove vital care structures such as ‘caring for children and the elderly, supporting working people and the unemployed’ out into the streets in order to save money? We’ve heard this one before. It was called ‘Care in the Community.’

Oh, yes. And tucked away in the pages of ‘Work for Welfare’ are some really juicy howlers, such as:

‘Equal pay audits will apply only to those firms which lose pay discrimination cases’.

Which is a logical and VITAL part of making the welfare state work for everyone, clearly. Only a progressive socialist government has the tenacity and social responsibility to make welfare reform work: we must work now to avoid handing a fledgling system based on ‘rights and responsibilities’ over to the tories, who will never understand in our lifetimes what it really means to be poor, sick and desperate.