‘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.

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