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