Nothing about us without us? Are you bonkers?

In May this year, I joined members of the Mental Health Resistance Network at an event at the Old Vic. It was a panel debate on the state of mental health provision in the UK, one of their Voices Off events linked to the production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. The original panel was Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Mental Health; Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind; and Simon Wessely President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. MHRN members protested that there were no service user speakers, and eventually Peter Beresford and Alice Evans were invited onto the panel.

Inspired by the desperate lack of service user voices, mental health activists rapidly got together a zine to distribute at the meeting – a passionate collection of first-hand experiences of living on the sharp end of mental health disability in the UK. Jay Watts of the Alliance contributed a cartoon strip. I promised a short piece but couldn’t finish it for the deadline. Here it is – my belated contribution.

Read the full zine here


What’s wrong with people wanting to talk in public about other people’s mental health without including them in the conversation?

We psychotherapists definitely like to talk about our clients in the third person, though we don’t usually do it when they might be in the room. We do it behind their backs.

We like to exchange anecdotes about how difficult so and so is; about the terribly interesting unconscious meaning of what so and so said; about the clever little interpretation we were ‘able to offer’; about how narcissistic, borderline, dissociated, manic, aggressive, negative or just plain bonkers… so and so is.

So and so is not usually there when we speak about them, which is a good thing. If they were, we wouldn’t feel quite so free to show off how clever we are to our colleagues, or our students, or our partners and friends. We might feel a little inhibited, just a little caught out. A little wanting in ethical authenticity.

For the Mad Old Vic panel, the rationale for talking about, not talking with, is surely that three of the panel members have professional authority in the field.

A senior psychiatrist, the CEO of Mind, and the shadow Minister for Mental Health surely have something intelligent and authoritative to say about people who suffer psychologically. Could it be they have their own psychic pain somewhere tucked away inside them? Better not to ask. We are here to talk about people with mental health problems, not to talk about our own problems.

If you ask me, an awful lot of people are scared shitless by madness. Like they are terrified of poverty. Poverty and mental illness – handmaidens of hell. What they have in common is their contagion. You know, if you get too close the lurgy spreads from you to me. We psychotherapists are scared of this. We fend it off with the technologies of our trade, our magic words like ‘countertransference’ and ‘projection’ – spells we cast to keep the horrors at bay. They make it clear that it’s your problem not ours.

Sitting up there on their panel’s rostrum, I am hoping our trio of professional experts will be able to make a few basic facts clear.

First, that there has been a growing epidemic of mental ill-health in the UK from the 1980’s onward, as evidenced by the massive increase in anti-depressant prescriptions and the need for a huge expansion of primary care psychological therapies to millions of citizens. Thank goodness for pharmaceutics and CBT.

Second, that there is no connection between increasing mental ill-health and the introduction of neoliberal economic and social policies by Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, under the sway of ideologues like Hayek and Friedman. Atomising communities, destroying social housing, breaking the trade unions, deskilling labour, generating massive inequalities of wealth and income, increasing poverty, undermining social welfare provision, consistently cutting the mental health budget, creating a precariat of low pay, part-time, zero hour employment; overseeing a staggering increase in household debt, manufacturing a global financial crisis, following it up with austerity policies aimed at the least well-off, waging imperialist wars in the Middle East – all of this has no bearing on the mental health of the nation. It is NOT true that it is our society that’s sick.

In fact, third, psychological pain and distress is located in the individual. A good proportion of it is probably genetic and/or the embedded dysfunctionality of troubled families. A lot of it is negative thinking, laced with self-pity and dependence on a welfare culture. People need to strive more, skive less. With a judiciously administered balance of encouragement, nudge, threat, bribery and coercion most people will recover their capacity to join in our happy society.

Finally, we need to trust our psy experts up there on the podium, give them more money and more power. Let them get to work on this contagious epidemic of loneliness, depression, fear and anxiety. Trust the technologies of diagnosis, treatment and cure that are so successfully defining and dealing with the epidemic, offering each suffering individual recovery into happiness, optimism and the chance of being part of our hard-working family. Stop putting money into the welfare state, stop putting money into old fashioned care and treatment. Focus on building the innovative, practical recovery strategies that are quick, easy and cheap.

I suppose when we come down to it, talking with people is not very easy, and not very conclusive. All too often it turns out that, like you, people are really very complex and confusing human beings. Before long, talking with people at any depth over a decent period of time undoes your sense that you may know something more about being a successful person than they do. In fact, talking to people soon leads you to realise that you don’t really know very much at all, once you’ve been taken outside your comfort zone. Soon you are flying by the seat of your pants in that intersubjective realm that is so human and yet so disturbing. Most of us, quite rightly, get busy trying to establish anchors, to impose narratives of meanings that are familiar enough to our poor old egos and their ‘entitlements’.

Otherwise, this is exactly how the contagion gets going. Whose pain, love, fear and loss am I feeling? Yours or mine? When we begin to experience our differences, who is right, who is wrong? Why is it so bloody hard to be me and let you be you? What am I frightened of? Like the testimonials to lived experience in the zine, people move us and not necessarily into worlds we want to visit.

This is not the kind of experience that facilitates handy diagnosis, treatment regimes and evidence-based efficacy.

In an age when a tide of depression and anxiety is overwhelming us, when the loud and increasingly disingenuous promises of more resources for mental health services are outdone only by the savagery of regular service cuts, and when the rhetoric of a revolutionary expansion of psychological therapies is being swamped by mushrooming waiting lists, shorter courses of treatment and undertrained and underpaid workers – surely the very last thing we need are the voices of service users and survivors muddying the waters.

If we are not very careful, the conclusion that neoliberal society itself is a mental health disability afflicting all our citizens will be difficult to disguise.

Paul Atkinson

Andrew Samuels on Jobcentre Therapy and the Psy-Organisations

Letter submitted to Therapy Today (the BACP journal) but not published.


I’d like to respond to Catherine Jackson’s interesting article Colocation or collusion? How ethical are the Government’s proposals for closer working between IAPT services and Jobcentre Plus?’ (Therapy Today, April 2016, pp.8-9).

Catherine’s title suggests that the issue is generating heat and, at the end of this letter, I make a suggestion for a dialogical, relational next step.

What Catherine wrote illustrates the usual dilemma that the large professional organisations find themselves in with regard to Government policies – in this case, the many linkages between employment on the one hand and psychological therapies on the other. If bodies such as BACP, UKCP, BPC, BPS and BABCP are too robust in their criticism of Government policies, they will be labelled as ‘the awkward squad’ and ‘the usual suspects’. Doors in Whitehall close, requests for meetings go unanswered or evaded. That doesn’t serve the interests of the members. But what if they are too compliant, too accepting and even collusive with Government policy? What if the Big Five (as I call them) have inadvertently fallen into a role as being one of passing on reassurance to their memberships about the reassurance they themselves have received from the Department of Work and Pensions? That isn’t what members expect either.

I suspect that getting this particular balance right matters a lot to BACP members – it certainly did at the UKCP when I was Chair and the conundrum continues to be frequently discussed there. It is a really difficult balance to achieve. Be that as it may, Catherine’s article describes a significant new development in the field, in which 17 separate organisations have united to make the claim that the Big Five professional bodies referred to may need to do more to bring to the attention of their members what the overall thrust is of the linkages being made at many levels between employment and ‘mental health’. These 17 organisations include service user/survivor groups working alongside organised groups of professional counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists, social workers, mental health nurses and academics. In all my 44 years as a therapist involved with public issues, I cannot remember anything like this happening before. It’s really important that BACP, in particular, with its deserved reputation for being the most outward-oriented of all the big professional bodies, clocks the significance of what has happened; I hope that the recognition of the importance of user-professional co-operation is not being too slow to arise. (See Note 1, below, for a roll call of the organisations concerned; the names tell their own story.)

In the public correspondence between the Big Five and the 17 organisations challenging them, there seems to be one point of agreement – at least in the abstract, at the level of principle. This is that therapy which has employment as a specific goal stated in advance is questionable from clinical and ethical standpoints. This is what the memberships of the Big Five believe, I think, and hence it is what they expect their leaderships to support.

But there is an increasing amount of ‘therapy-for-work’ being offered in Britain today and the Big Five know about it. Not least, their websites carry adverts whose job descriptions make it clear that the client’s employment is to be the clinical goal of the therapist that will be appointed. To be clear: the main issue here is not that our organisations carry the adverts. The thing is, now it has been pointed out, it is a little problematic to go on saying that this is not happening on the ground. The evidence is very close to hand. Or, to give a further and more general example, the New Savoy Conference, of which four of the Big Five are members, has been explicit that the stated clinical goal of psychological therapy should be employment. IAPTs, too, follow the same line, as Catherine mentions.

Counsellors and psychotherapists, who bring psychological perspectives to bar on public affairs, will understand that the proposals to locate ‘therapy’ in job centres will have (and has already had) a profound emotional impact. Counsellors and psychotherapists all know that the line between ‘suggestion’ and ‘compulsion’ is a very difficult one to demarcate. Vulnerable people can and often do say ‘No’ to what they believe will damage them, no matter how well intended. But, as therapists, shouldn’t we be concerned at what a false compliance does to the emotional state of an individual going through a difficult time?

Returning to the suggestion I flagged up in my opening paragraph, how about BACP convening a Stakeholders’ Meeting at which these matters can be more deeply explored. The Big Five plus the 17 smaller organisations would be at the core of such a gathering. Whether the Department of Work and Pensions would attend is something to discuss.

Andrew Samuels

Professor of Analytical Psychology, University of Essex; former Chair, United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy


Note 1

The organisations referred to are: Mental Wealth Foundation, Mental Health Resistance Network, Disabled People Against Cuts, Recovery in the Bin, Boycott Workfare, The Survivors Trust, Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy,  College of Psychoanalysts, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, Psychologists Against Austerity, Free Psychotherapy Network,  Psychotherapists and Counsellors Union, Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network, Social Work Action Network (Mental Health Charter), National Unemployed Workers Combine, Merseyside County Association of Trades Union Councils, Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network, National Health Action Party

Jobcentre Therapy: MWF exchange letters with the big Psy-Organisations

Following the Mental Wealth Foundation’s (MWF) letter to the five large psy-professions organisations, challenging their statement on jobcentre therapy and psycho-coercion, the organisations responded (see that response at the end of this blog).

The MWF replied on 12 April 2016, raising further issues and proposing a meeting for further dialogue. At the time of writing, this and other requests to meet face-to-face have gone unacknowledged.  Please read on for the full MWF reply…


From:

Mental Wealth Foundation

Mental Health Resistance Network; Disabled People Against Cuts; Recovery in the Bin; Boycott Workfare; The Survivors Trust; Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy; College of Psychoanalysts; Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility; Psychologists Against Austerity; Free Psychotherapy Network; Psychotherapists and Counsellors Union; Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network; Social Work Action Network (Mental Health Charter); National Unemployed Workers Combine; Merseyside County Association of Trades Union Councils; Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network; National Health Action Party

To:

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies; British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; British Psychoanalytic Council; British Psychological Society; United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy

Professional bodies scrutinise Government therapists in job centres plans

Thank you for your response of 24 March 2016. We would like to reiterate our invitation to a dialogue around these issues. We are a unique alliance of 17 diverse organisations, representing clients, therapists, campaigners and academics with a unique breadth and depth of perspective. We would very much like to share this wealth of experience and expertise with you; and to understand your position better. We think your members would expect you to meet with us, given the very diverse range of organisations that have united in order to communicate with you.

We appreciate your assurances that you oppose as unethical any coercion or sanctioning connected with psychological therapy’s contribution to the government’s workfare programmes. We also welcome your statement that “[you] do not believe the role of therapists should be to get people back to work”, and that the therapeutic value of employment is conditional both on individual circumstance and the nature of any particular employment and its environment.

At the same time, we are aware that as members of the New Savoy Partnership four of your organisations have welcomed recent workfare proposals, have initiated collaboration between DoH and DWP on Health and Work pilots, and have invited Lord Freud as Minister of Welfare Reform to open a number of your recent annual conferences. Your ‘Joint Pledge on Welfare’  states:

“We welcome the opportunity the Work Programme provides to support more people with mental health conditions into appropriate and sustainable employment.  Specifically, we will develop our expertise to help people with mental health conditions find, enter and remain in employment.” (emphasis added)

We cannot see how your position differs in any significant aspect from that of the DWP and you seem to have allowed yourselves to be drawn into becoming active partners in the government’s workfare policies. We believe – and we know many of your members agree – that the “psy” professions are being let down by our professional bodies going along with government aims and schemes, instead of using their professional knowledge together with service user experience to influence the proper provision of therapeutic services in more appropriate settings, for the benefit of clients and the profession. Clearly your views do in fact differ significantly from ours. Isn’t this something better explored at a meeting?

Over recent months, dozens of adverts for DWP financed mental health advisor and employment coach posts have invited applications from people accredited by you, including as we have already pointed out, those in Therapy Today. These job descriptions are explicit that the role is to get people off benefits and into work. Our concern remains that no action has been taken to inform or protect your members or their clients about involvement in work of this nature which breaches ethical practice.

The top-down nature of policymaking causes alienation and distrust of government workfare policies with a reliance on expert think-tank research, “evidence-based” reports, and a reluctance to engage in any real collaboration with either service users or practitioners.   We are offering you an opportunity to do something different. We believe it is within your role and responsibility, as national professional bodies representing psychological therapies, counselling and psychotherapy in the UK, to hold open an independent arena of public debate on issues of national policy.

We believe your collusion with the government is now threatening to undermine the ethical integrity of the “psy” professions among service user/survivors and professionals. A year ago, our joint letter to the Guardian signed by 440 psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors raised the alarm about the probability of mandatory psychological therapy coming into being through the co-location of IAPT workers in Job Centres. A year on, the development of Health and Work projects under the DWP’s workfare banner is promoting more, not less fear, demoralisation, and distrust among the members of the organisations the MWF umbrella represents.

As survivors and witnesses of the impact of these developments, we are compelled to act against welfare to work policies and associated government-sanctioned psychological coercion which harms service users and professionals alike. You didn’t reply to our call to cease engagement with the Government Joint Work and Health Unit, and to hold a national event where all stakeholders views can be heard. We would like our campaign to include open debate with the professional bodies whose interests must surely include upholding the ethical values of psychological practice, for the sake of all.

We look forward to your response to our offer.

 


Appendix

Letter from psy-organisations to MWF, dated 24th March 2016:

Dear members of the Mental Wealth Foundation,

Thank you for your letter,

It might be useful if we started by clarifying a number of points that we have made repeatedly to the Department for Work and Pensions. We do not believe that anyone should be coerced into therapy and would denounce any coercion or sanctioning in relation to ‘job centre therapy’. As a result of ethical concerns raised last summer around coercion and sanctioning in relation to ‘job centre therapy’ we, as professional psychological therapy organisations, immediately contacted the Department for Work and Pensions. We were also acutely aware of, and remain acutely aware of, the wider context of sanctions and cuts.

Work is not always good for people’s mental health and wellbeing and we too recognize that poor quality, stressful and insecure employment can be detrimental and profoundly damaging. We also do not believe that employment should be viewed as a universally beneficial health outcome. At the same time, however, good employment can help people, by adding security and purpose to people’s lives, thus enhancing their mental well being. There should indeed not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach and we do not support a policy of work as cure.

We share the view that clients should have their current needs, perspective and autonomy respected but we also make it clear that we do not believe the role of therapists should be to get people back to work. Instead, we believe that the role of the therapist should always be to work with clients to help them resolve their mental health issues. We also do not believe people should receive psychological therapy in an environment where they feel uncomfortable and we do not believe client’s privacy should be compromised.

It is nevertheless important to recognise that access to psychological therapy remains restricted and people are suffering needlessly because of this. It is also the case that rates of mental health problems among people who are unemployed remain unacceptably high. There are likely to be a multitude of reasons for this, from loss of sense of purpose, to the stresses of the sanctions regime – and we wish to see all of these factors tackled. Improving voluntary access to psychological therapy for jobcentre clients is therefore a policy which deserves proper consideration and as organisations which represent psychological therapists, we recognise that the provision of appropriate, voluntary, therapy can play a role in alleviating distress.

The DWP has repeatedly told us that there will be no coercion involved or sanctioning of clients who do not wish to enter psychological therapy. It has also said that clients will have
a choice of where they can access their therapy. We have also secured a promise of a thorough evaluation of their planned small-scale co-location feasibility trial, which should provide a clear indication of whether people’s health and wellbeing is genuinely being improved in both the short and the long term. We suggest it is prudent to review these evaluations before prejudging a project that could provide genuine help to jobcentre clients who experience issues with their mental health.

We also note that your letter conflates different projects. Our organisations are concerned with the provision of therapy to jobcentre clients. We are mindful that other projects have
been initiated in regard to the co-location of work coaches in GPs surgeries, and that other organisations have engaged in scrutiny of these projects. We do not believe we are the most appropriate organisations to comment on those proposals, given they do not involve therapeutic coaches or psychological therapy – which is why our joint response made no mention of those plans.

We would also ask you to note that any past job adverts for positions outside of our organisations should in no way be regarded as the official opinion of any of our organisations individually or collectively.

Yours sincerely,

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
The British Psychoanalytic Council
The British Psychological Society
The UK Council for Psychotherapy

‘Nature’ v ‘Civilisation’ End-Of-Life Notice

psyCommons

The psyCommons proposal about how around three quarters of the UK population survive and flourish without psyprofessions help and the consequences of this, appears to be unchallenged. A wider political context for psyCommons recently emerged that may account for some of the distress from which the remaining 25% suffer.

DSC03999

Several decades of living afloat on the Thames in London included extended experience of the Thames as a wilderness. Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error2. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.

‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’.

The ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ category error is damaging, it leads to ‘nature’ being both idealised and abused. Supreme…

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‘Welfare Reforms and Mental Health – Resisting Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion’. Conference Report – Part Three

In the final part of our report from the conference, Jay Watts and Nicola Saunders share their reflections on the day.


Jay Watts

I’ve slightly volunteered myself to write something about the ‘Welfare Reforms and Mental Health – Resisting Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion’ conference because it was, I think, the most exciting event I have been to in a twenty-year history as a mental health professional. Why?

First of all, thinking and planing the conference was a real collaboration, led by Paul Atkinson and Roy Bard. Some of us were lucky enough to hear reports back as they ventured off to territories unknown to find a space that would capture the ethos of the event – a place embedded in the community and activism, as Wade Hall turned out to be. I remember an email from Paul after one such trip, telling me of his delight at finding a local pub to use for small groups called ‘The Winnicott’, so named as the publican had done the one year introduction course to group analysis in the 1970s and been inspired! Here, the kind of embedding of therapy ideas in the community we really need!

“professionals lagging hopelessly behind”

When I arrived on the day, I was greeted with a hug by the marvellous Paula Peters, the kind of touching relations the day, I believe, fostered between those on the front line of disability activism, and us professionals lagging hopelessly behind. Hopelessly? Well, certainly not after the mutual feeding, planned actions, and passion of the day. The opening speeches by Paula, Denise, and Paul were inspiring – as others have written about. But perhaps the banter and respect between the three was as important as a model of what collaborative work might look like.

At 11:00, Rob Stearn and I set off to run our workshop on ‘psychocompulsion’ with about thirty survivors, professionals, and the undefinable. This was both an honour, and a bit of a blow as it meant missing out on other workshops being run at the same time. One of our group – Liz Hughes – has written beautifully about the themes of our conversations so I won’t repeat this. But let me add that I was most taken by the emotional honesty of our grouping, many of whom were suffering that very day with insistent forms and letters from the DWP who just won’t let go of the persecution.

One of the main feedbacks of the day was how nice it was to have a warm lunch ready, so we could talk together and not splinter off to find local amendments. Steaming plate of soup in hand, we settled in to share stories, greet new friends, make new connections. It was especially nice to meet in person many of the twitter activists – we who have shared so many passions, disappointments and hope whilst missing the embodied experience of one another.

“There is a moment in all this, a moment we are in, a moment of potential profound change in how we work together, and the social power we can thus wield”

Afternoon now, I found myself in Roy Bard’s workshop on ‘Mental Wealth’, after the now normal flurry of wondering how I could be in four separate workshops at one time. Roy proposed a new consortium of organisations – survivor, professional, academic, activist – to fight together to challenge the current organisational structures that exist, so deeply in the pocket of the establishment, desperate for crumbs of prestige and funding at the cost of a true ethics. As a group, we held vastly different ideas of what was going wrong, what needs to be done. But out of our dialogue, a tapestry began to be sewn of what the next stage of our activism might look like. And lo and behold, even in the weeks since the conference, the new ‘Mental Wealth’ consortium has bought together very diverse organisations in our first action – a statement to the professional organisations piercing through the ‘reassurance’ of a recent professionals’ press statement saying any link between therapy, job centres and benefits will be ethical.

There is a moment in all this, a moment we are in, a moment of potential profound change in how we work together, and the social power we can thus wield. The conference inspired me most, I believe, because it was one of the first spaces I have been in where the personal, professional and political were taken equally seriously with survivors, professionals and activists present in equal numbers as equals. As someone who has been under psychiatric services in my day, been on disability, but got to get out, this is the only way of being that makes sense to me, that brings it all together.

“We felt mobilised, emboldened, fierce”

After this nourishment, it was with hearts lifted that we reconnected as a larger group for workshop feedbacks, final comments and questions. We felt mobilised, emboldened, fierce. But dotted in amongst this spirit were comments reminding us again and again of the lost lives, anguished realities, and impossible-to-bear poverties the welfare state has inflicted upon us. These comments bought tears to me eyes.

As the formal parts of the day closed – to make way for dance, poetry and music – all of us professionals – I feel – were left with both a renewed horror in what our theories have been used to legitimise, and a profound sense that this event gave us a glimmer that something different was, is, possible. That a different way of being together, supporting each other, fighting for each other is not only conceivable, but the only ethical way to go forward as individuals, professionals and friends.

In solidarity – Jay.


Nicola Saunders

I was late after getting lost but fortunately bumped into Andy, a colleague from the Free Psychotherapy Network, and others talking about how good the opening speakers were, whilst walking to the Winnicott pub for the psy-compulsion workshop – I joined them. We were a mix of survivors, service users, students, psychotherapy trainees and psy professionals. The workshop began with an introduction from Jay and Rob from Boycott Workfare.

After a short silence the group discussion was started by a person who had been forced to stop work because of ill health.   After being told they couldn’t work again and coming to terms with the impact of that on their life, they were told they were ‘fit to work’ at a medical assessment. Looking for work and not being employed because of their illness, they had met Rob and joined Boycott Workfare and the campaign to inform and influence charities from joining workfare.

“The person sitting next to me spoke about not wanting this to be like other meetings where ‘we just talk’.”

A ‘mental health advocate’ had travelled from outside London, spoke next, wanting to be at the conference but frustrated at finding themselves on the waiting list, decided to take the risk after speaking to Paul and ‘came anyway’. Much of their job is now supporting people to engage with the benefits system in order that they receive the benefits they are entitled to. They were very pleased to be there and be with people who want to do something about what is happening.

The person sitting next to me spoke about their not wanting this to be like the other meetings they have been to where ‘we just talk’. Following a discussion on how do psy-professionals engage with other professionals who take up jobs in job centres, they suggested we ask to speak on their training courses and explain to them what happens to the people they see when they do these jobs.

After lunch I went to the Mental Wealth workshop where there was a wide and diverse range of views and critiques of neo-liberalism. It felt to me at times that that there was such a wide a range of views being expressed, that it might prove too difficult to find a consensus, and a big enough campaigning umbrella for all to come together under. I wondered if it might have been helpful for the Mental Wealth and Direct Action workshops to have come together at this point!

Gradually though the campaign to save mental health day services in Liverpool was spoken about. Service users, social workers and academics coming together to defend day support from local authority cuts – and winning. Local defend council housing campaigns were mentioned – 1 in 4 people living on the street have a mental health problem (St Mungo’s: 2016). There was a suggestion for a way of collecting details of the many campaign groups in order that learning and resources can be shared.   And on the Monday after the conference the beginning of the writing of the joint public statement on psychocompulsion under the Mental Wealth umbrella began. I’m sure all in the workshop would have approved.

Nicola

Go back to part one and part two of our report.

‘Welfare Reforms and Mental Health – Resisting Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion’. Conference Report – Part Two

In part two of our conference report, Richard House reflects on an historic event


Psy Users and Professionals Join in Common Activist Cause: a report on a one-day conference in Bermondsey, London, 5 March 2016

An historic event

This historic conference, entitled ‘Welfare Reforms and Mental Health – Resisting Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion’, was jointly organised by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) and the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, with the aim of bringing together activists and campaigners, both mental health and claimant activists and psy professionals, with a view to resisting punitive Conservative Government’s welfare reforms.

We use the term ‘historic’ advisedly, because to our knowledge this is one of the first (if not the first) occasion/s where service users, survivors, clients, psy professionals and academics have come together without the usual, often stultifying ‘expert’/‘client’ hierarchies of power. Indeed, it has rapidly become evident to members of the Alliance in recent months that when it comes to activism, we professionals have a huge amount to learn from the users and survivors of the services that professionals provide. So there was a really tangible sense of equality between everyone present at this gathering – the kind of thing that over-professionalised elements of the therapy world would no doubt be appalled by, and would construct allegedly sound, self-serving theoretical rationales as to why such equality wouldn’t be good for users/clients! Our response to such balderdash probably isn’t printable in a public document of this kind; but we warmly welcome this, the latest foray into what an exciting ‘post-professional’ psy world might begin to look like.

The conference

The conference was ably introduced and chaired by Paula Peters of DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), and Paula introduced us to two magnificent and inspiring speakers: Paul Atkinson of the Alliance, and Denise McKenna of MHRN (both addresses are to be reproduced in the Humanistic Psychology journal Self & Society later this year; also see Denise’s address here).

“the politics of austerity and neoliberalism, and their noxious effects on those most susceptible to psychological distress and fragility in society”

Paul and Denise spoke incredibly movingly about the backdrop to just why we were all assembled here, each striking an admirable balance between ‘diagnosing’ the problem and the issues, and calls for action and effective mobilisation and resistance. The main focus was on the politics of austerity and neoliberalism, and their noxious effects on those most susceptible to psychological distress and fragility in society, especially poor and disabled people. Indeed, the state as abuser was a recurrent motif that ran through the whole event.

We then broke for a series of inspiring and richly diverse workshops – something for everyone – the only drawback seeming to be that everyone wanted to go to all of them! The following workshops comprised the event:

  • Welfare reform and psychological coercion – with Rob Stearn and Jay Watts
  • Recovery In The Bin (RITB) – 19 Principles
  • Organising to tackle professional bodies, charities, and DWP staff – with Paul Atkinson
  • Campaigning Priorities – with the Mental Health Resistance Network
  • Emotional support for Survivors and Activists
  • The Mental Wealth Foundation – with Roy Bard
  • Direct Action – with Andy Greene

It’s quite impossible to do justice in this short review to the range of vital themes identified and explored on the day. To name just a few raised in one of the workshops I attended:

  • the issue of how we might step up campaigning around the collusion of professional organisations and charities with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and Work and Health initiatives on welfare to work;
  • the theme of why psychology and psychotherapy are being used by government-funded agencies to legitimate oppression;
  • Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) promoting a CBT agenda designed to coerce people into being productive consumers rather than offering care; examples of how survivors and mental health workers organised together to opposing the cutting of a successful peer-led project in Liverpool;
  • how community psychologists are organising campaigns in Brighton and elsewhere in the country;
  • how we might use the local press alongside social media to by-pass the bias of official national media.

Each participant was able to attend two workshops in all and my sense was that the discussions were wide-ranging, with the synergy of users, psy professionals and academics producing a quality of discussion and sharing which was far more than the sum of its parts. This surely has to be just the start of something new, exciting and vitally important in the world of psy.

The evening social

As if the rich fare of the day wasn’t sufficient for us all, we were then treated in the evening to a stunningly excellent artistic cabaret of talented musicians and poets, with the likes of Edgar Broughton (he of the legendary 1970s prog rock Edgar Broughton Band), the amazing iconoclastic singer-songwriter Dave Russell, and the radical performance poet, Woman Of Bones Tara Fleur.

Two particular highlights were Dave Russell’s extraordinary cover of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ (‘Beefheart meets Stockhausen’, as someone remarked at the time) and Tara Fleur’s poem ‘I.D.S.I.O.T’., in which she searingly exposes the outrage that is the government’s back-to-work regime for those with mental health issues; a poem that brings humour and hilarity, visceral passion, outrage and tragedy – all wrapped into one breathtaking bravura performance. A ‘John Cooper Clarke moment’, as one poster expressed it on YouTube. This 12-minute, must-watch poem is indeed now on YouTube – and we strongly urge all our supporters to circulate this link to all of their contacts – a poem that will hopefully become a key ideological port of call in the struggle against the appallingly iatrogenic back-to-work regime. It was certainly good to be reminded that talking-shops do have their limits, and that brilliant agitprop and political art can reach places that nothing else can.

And what next?

All in all, then, this conference was a crucial and necessary staging-post on the way towards creating a critical mass in and around psy that can effectively resist the flagrant class attacks on poor and disabled people that the current government is perpetrating. The hope was also expressed that these events might become on ongoing forum of support for those working in and around ‘psy and the state’ – so watch this oppositional space! Certainly, as we write some strong post-conference initiatives are already underway. A dozen activist therapy and service user organisations are currently preparing an open letter to the main professional organisations, calling them out on their tacit support for the DWP’s welfare to work policies. A working group will be meeting to develop the Mental Wealth Foundation, an umbrella for radical mental health activism. We are developing groups of support and advocacy for people facing Work Capability Assessments. The working group for the next conference is forming. The day was also filmed, including face-to-face interviews with some key psy ‘movers and shakers’; and a film is currently being made which will soon be available on the Alliance, DPAC and MHRN websites.

And finally, we’d like to offer our heart-felt thanks to Gary, Mandy and Ilona at Wade Hall, Dickens Estate, Parker’s Row, Bermondsey for providing such a great venue for this event, for coping so wonderfully with the mushrooming number of attendees and for the wonderfully generous catering.

And once more to Paul Atkinson and Roy Bard for the tremendous work they put into organising this stunningly successful event.


See part three of our conference report here.

Go back to part one here.

‘Welfare Reforms and Mental Health – Resisting Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion’. Conference Report – Part One

On 5 March 2016 at a community centre in south London, mental-health activists, psy-practitioners and academics gathered for a day of consciousness-raising around welfare reforms and mental health.  In the first of four reports, we share the conference film Resisting Psychological Coercion, and Paul Atkinson looks at how this landmark event came about.


Kicking it off

Roy Bard of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) and I cooked up the conference. I’d called a meeting of lefty therapists to respond to the news last Spring that Osborne and co. planned to put IAPT therapists in Jobcentres. It seemed to me to be a golden opportunity to try and get us psych’s out of the bubble of our familiar concerns into the world of social class, poverty, welfare benefits, and mental and physical disability. The connection was being made for us by Ian Duncan Smith, George Osborne and, in fact, a next logical step in the recuperation of the psychological professions for neoliberal agendas. A few connections through Occupy St Paul’s prodded me to invite Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and MHRN. I didn’t expect them to be interested, but they were.

Thirty of us met at the Jagonari Centre in Whitechapel. In true psych fashion we went round the group introducing ourselves. Someone – I think it was Roy – said, almost in desperation I discovered later, “Well, we’re doing an action at Streatham Jobcentre. You could join us”. We did. Mental health activists and therapists, and plenty of other campaigners, marched on Streatham Jobcentre in June and a few of us gatecrashed the MH hub’s opening do on the second floor. And then we went to the pub.

A view of the Alliance’s spanking new banner from the second floor of Streatham Jobcentre Plus, 26th June 2015
A view of the Alliance’s spanking new banner from the second floor of Streatham Jobcentre Plus, 26th June 2015

Six months and some relationship building later, with the Tories’ welfare to work and Health and Work policies mushrooming, I thought it might be time for another meeting to talk strategy on how psychs and mental health activists might work together with a bit more coherence. I was conscious all the time that it was my survivor partners who had all the brownie points. They were the activists. We were the Johnny-come-latelies who had basically been part of the problem for a very long time. I was thinking another meeting of twenty to thirty people. Activists were not too keen this time. “We are really busy. We’ve got a lot going on – our own conferences…” As it turns out they also had a major action brewing, at an Islington GP practice protesting at the introduction of DWP/Remploy/Maximus ‘employment coaches’ into six Islington surgeries. Roy, however, thought it was a good idea anyway and that it should be a ‘mini-conference’ – a daylong meeting with workshops… “Er, okay, me and Roy will organise a conference… er, alright then…”  So we did.

Roy had the contact with Gary at Wade Hall, the tenants and residents association hall for the Dickens Estate in Bermondsey. I loved it. A real community venue, hidden away in the middle of a housing estate. Gary really wanted us to use his hall. It turned out he is a lefty himself and has his own mental health connections. The hall could take 80 people without a sweat. He was immediately on about doing food for us. We were on about wheelchair access to the loos. There were grab rails in the women’s loo, but the doorway wasn’t wide enough. Gary thought the pub across the road had an accessible loo, or maybe the church hall down the road. And council workers had a building round the corner for storage and tea that had a disabled loo. He might be able to borrow the key. And by the way, Wade Hall had a licence and why didn’t we have a social in the evening – he would open the bar and if people paid a pound to become members for a year… I was busy fantasising about showing a DPAC activist in a wheelchair the way to the church hall somewhere down the road, probably in the rain, so they could have a piss.

“There is a serious hunger out there to do something about the horrific attacks on disabled people, on our welfare state, on our basic belief in social justice”

I eventually got the Eventbrite link up with a pretty cursory description of the conference and networks started to tweet. Thirty-six hours later the conference was full, and within a week nearly a hundred people were on the waiting list. There is a serious hunger out there to do something about the horrific attacks on disabled people, on our welfare state, on our basic belief in social justice and our values as a society generally.

We now had a conference of anything up to 200; we had thought maybe 50. We wanted the day to be mainly workshops – short introductory plenary speakers, then down to work. What are we planning to do about the DWP’s violence, the coercion of welfare to work, the terror of Work Capability Assessments, of sanctions and conditionality rules? The hall might take 100 at a push, but how do we break out into workshop groups? We reckoned we needed three, preferably four workshop spaces. There were two at Wade Hall.

Wade Hall
Wade Hall

Gary raised his game. There was another hall we could hire for two workshop sessions fifteen minutes away. And there was a pub by the river that advertised free meeting space in its bar for local community groups – it was called The Winnicott (yes, that Winnicott). A mini-conference spread over a community ‘campus’ on three sites. Colleagues were saying, “Book a bigger venue”. They hadn’t met Gary. On the spot he phoned the other hall and negotiated a discounted rate. Later he walked us over to negotiate transitional space with The Winnicott.

So far, strangely easy. Eventbrite and social media opens a door with a crowd of people waiting to get in. Gary provides a Tardis-like venue with bells and whistles. Lucky, because apart from me most of the people who were going to make this event happen were suddenly a lot busier organising the Islington GP demo, timed for the day before the conference. We joked that key players may well still be in the nick on Saturday morning. We’d have to call in the reserves on the waiting list.

A small group of organisers – Paula, Denise, Andrea, Lynne and Jay – joined Roy and me. Over coffee at the BFI and a few emails, we sorted out the workshops, the administration and the domestics, talked about the videoing of the event, the process of the day and what we hoped might come out of it.

“The warmth and the gratitude from all sides for an opportunity to meet to talk political action on mental health and the attacks on the welfare state were palpable.”

I became a bit addicted to Eventbrite. All those names and email addresses. How many did I know? Hardly any. People started to get in touch to ask about travel directions, to apologise and cancel their tickets, to say they really wanted to come but were too late for a ticket, can I get them in. I got the sense that people were coming from all over the UK. We used the survey monkey link to ask everyone who they were – survivor, professional, campaigner; about access and dietary needs; permission to film and to contact after the conference. Fabulously, of the people who replied there were equal numbers of people who identified themselves as service user/survivors and professionals (some of course were both). From the numbers registering and the open enthusiasm of people getting in touch, it was quickly feeling like a really special event. The warmth and the gratitude from all sides for an opportunity to meet to talk political action on mental health and the attacks on the welfare state were palpable.

The Islington GP action on Friday 4th was a big success. A massive amount of careful planning had gone into it. The energy on the day was electric. In its closing phase, as we stood around ‘occupying’ Old Street roundabout in the rush hour, I wondered how on earth people were going to manage to get up next day and get a conference to happen. Surely it was going to be mainly down to me. At about 10 that evening, I began to get anxious. Were there enough chairs? I couldn’t remember what Gary had said. Was it totally mad to expect people to wander around Bermondsey – in the rain the forecast said – looking for a pub to have a one hour workshop? Did Denise and I have time at 10am, as arranged, to put up signage from Bermondsey station into the labyrinthine recesses of the Dickens Estate? Had I printed off the maps and the registration list, did I have enough pens? What about buckets for donations – aargh, no! At 4 on Saturday morning I woke up in a panic and emailed Gary to say we needed the hall open earlier than we’d arranged. Carol tried to get me back to bed. We just lay there wide awake like two anxious and excited new lovers, except not. “I’m going to bloody kill you later today, you nutcase! Do you want me to come over with you in the morning and help you get going?” Oh yes, please.

“These people want to be here, they want to be together. And they want to do something together.”

When we arrived at 9.30, Gary and Mandy were already rushing around. “We’ve been cacking it”, he said. I gave him a therapist’s understanding smile. “So has he”, said Carol, spotting my subterfuge. “He had us awake at 4 in the morning cacking it”. Mmmm.. always good to have you around, darling. Other people start to arrive. Chairs are put out in rows. Tony carries the PA system in from his camper van. Paula sets up the registration table. Denise and I set off with the plastic envelopes and cable ties. By 10.30 we have a few conference goers. They look good. Pretty happy despite the rain and the struggle to find Wade Hall. All sorts of people looking almost instantly at home and glad to meet each other. By kick-off at 11 we have maybe 40 people in the hall, less than half the number registered. “People don’t turn up to a free event, you know”. We hear this a lot in the Free Psychotherapy Network. “They don’t value the work if they don’t have to pay”. We hang on a bit. People are still piling in. By lunch, it’s going to be 90 or so.

But now, I’m relaxing. Paula’s in the chair. Denise and I will kick things off. It feels good; very, very good. These people want to be here, they want to be together. And they want to do something together.


See part two of our conference report – by Richard House – here.

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