How do we get mental wealth?

In his address to a Labour Party conference fringe event, Paul Atkinson examines the social and political forces at work in our society’s current approach to psychological distress and asks what we need from a new government to support and nourish the nation’s mental wealth.


For whatever reasons – reasons that I think are very important and need to be explored – the emotional and psychological difficulties of living in this society are becoming increasingly visible and alarming: in our families; in our schools and colleges; in our local communities; in the attention drawn to mental ill health by (social) media, charities and celebrities, as well as politicians and social policy makers.

Should we think of this growing attention to mental health and the emotional conditions of contemporary life as a sign of growing awareness of the pain and suffering that has always been with us, hidden away in the private closet of social stigma and shame? Or are we witnessing the symptoms of an increasingly dysfunctional, disturbed and disturbing political and social structure? However we interpret it, I think we can say that there is something very, very wrong. It has either always been wrong, or over the last two to three decades we have been getting something very wrong. Certainly both Tory and Labour governments have been getting something very wrong, and are continuing to get it wrong.

To my way of thinking, there is something very wrong with a political economy which simply carries on, blindly it seems, propagating and prioritising the same fundamentally alienating and corrosive values:

economic growth before all else;

the accumulation of status and worth through money, wealth and conspicuous consumption;

generating and acquiescing in deep inequalities of material wellbeing and of the opportunities to make creative, satisfying lives.

To my libertarian socialist mind, capitalism has always generated toxic side effects in its exploitation of people’s mental wealth – in the service of profit and the accumulation of the few. Neoliberal capitalism – its extractive and kleptocratic offspring – seems to be generating an accelerating pandemic of fear, insecurity and anxiety which is splintering and dividing us as communities and individuals.

So my message to the Labour Party is that we need a government that is prepared to redefine what society is for, who society is for. A government that acknowledges the priority of people’s emotional and spiritual lives, their relationships, their need to give and receive care, support and love from each other. We need a government that is prepared to put our mental wealth before our economic wealth.

Yes mental health services need more money, far more money and human resources. But better funding alone is not the answer.

I am not a mental health service user or survivor of the psychiatric system. I am not poor, black or gay. But let me give you an example from my professional world in which I can claim some small expertise by experience. Let me give an example of how more of the same as far as mental health funding is really not the answer; an example of how what seems like a major step for improving the nation’s mental health is turning out to be as much part of the problem as part of the answer.

In an article in the New York Times in July 2017, titled Englands Mental Health Experiment: No-Cost Talk Therapy, Benedict Carey – US journalistcelebrated as a globally inspiring initiative the UK’s programme of short courses of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in every primary care service in England – the Improving access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme:

‘England is in the midst of a unique national experiment, the worlds most ambitious effort to treat depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses.’

Colleagues and I on the left of the psychotherapy profession groaned in despair.

In 2008, Richard Layard and David Clark persuaded the Blair government to roll out an ambitious programme of CBT, offering psychological therapy for one million referrals a year through GPs. Layard, an economist specialising in unemployment and welfare to workfare policies, argued that mental ill health was the primary burden on the welfare budget of unemployed people receiving Employment and Support Allowance, and psychological therapy provided by the state would pay for itself by getting people off benefits.

On the face of it, it has been a huge success. Its champions call it the ‘IAPT revolution’. Every CCG in England offers psychological therapy under IAPT. Roughly 1.3 million referrals (some self referrals) were made to IAPT last year. It claims a 45% recovery rate. People in therapy that otherwise would never see therapy.

In reality…

Despite its value to probably many thousands of clients, the reality of NHS psychological therapy is far from the rosy picture Benedict Carey or its champions paint:

At an operational level, IAPT is an assembly line mental health fix.

Of the 1.3 million referrals last year, one third actually finished a course of treatment. In the end, only 12% of all referrals “recover”.

Almost half of these received what is called low-intensity (LI) treatment – something most psychotherapists would not recognise as talking therapy. For example, the most successful LI “therapy” was through non-guided self-help books.

The average number of sessions for all IAPT treatments is nine. A fifth consist of just two sessions. Recovery rates are falling, and the number of patients returning for repeat treatment is growing.

Almost all state funded talking therapy is now CBT, which has replaced virtually all other kinds of psychotherapy previously available free on the NHS.

The gold-standard evidence base for IAPT, based on random control trials, is in fact an avalanche of statistics highly manipulated towards maintaining state funding. Waiting lists are growing. Recovery rates within more deprived areas of England are significantly lower than in wealthier communities.

Meanwhile, according to a recent report by the British Psychological Society, the mental health of IAPT therapists and psychological practitioners is suffering a monumental nose-dive – 50% suffering depression, anxiety and acute work stress.

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And yet, for the moment at least, there seems to be little recognition at government level that something is amiss – the programme is expanding. IAPT is doing an important political job. As far as I and my fellow campaigners are concerned, that political job looks like this:

First, IAPT has no brief, no money and no time to be thinking about the causes and meaning of the mental health issues it is managing. It deals with symptoms on an individual basis and aims to get people back into their everyday “normal” lives as quickly and cheaply as possible. As far as I can see it has no interest in the social model of mental health or in the influence it might have on getting government to think about the emotional impact of economic and social policy generally.

Second, I think of IAPT as a partner of Big Pharma in the growing mental health/happiness industry. CBT with its tick-box inventories, like the mass consumption of anti-depressants, has grown rapidly since the end of the 1970s. They are both contemporaries of the neoliberal turn. IAPT therapy is essentially courses of positive thinking, encouraging you to take more responsibility for your states of mind and adapting a little more flexibly to the realities of the world you are in – including of course the world’s markets.

Third, like antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs, IAPT is administered from the top down, on the medical model of diagnosis and allocation of treatment by a health professional. While the client hopefully has a say in the content of a talking therapy session, she has little say in who she works with, in what kind of setting, with what kind of frame, for how long and so on. If you want a choice of psychotherapy approaches, if you want a therapeutic relationship that is on-going and open-ended, led by your own sense of need, pain and distress, then it’s private practice at £60 – £90 a session.

Fourth. IAPT is an NHS service, state funded and state led. Its basic brief is to get people back into the flow of a “normal” life as quickly and cheaply as possible. This has always included getting people back to work. From its inception, IAPT has occupied and helped create a space in which the government’s policies on mental health, employment and welfare meet up within the toxic framework of workfare, cutting welfare, maintaining a low wage labour market.

“psy professionals have allowed themselves to be drawn in to a system of psychocoercion”

What we as psy workers have been witnessing, as New Labour’s workfare iniatives have progressively developed into the Tories’ vicious – yes, murderous – attacks on people with mental and physical disabilities and on welfare provision generally, is that psychotherapists, psychologists, occupational therapists and mental health workers have been increasingly drawn in – and have allowed themselves to be drawn in – to a system of psychocoercion of people on welfare benefits, a system which glorifies work as the ultimate goal and obligation of citizenry.

As we know, the experience of many claimants with mental health difficulties is one of being terrorised by benefit cuts (whether in work or not), sanctions, fitness to work assessments, PIP, and now the further cuts of Universal Credit. For many, being driven off benefits is not into work: it is onto the streets, into the food banks, into an early grave through ill health, addiction, self harm and tragically, suicide.

The New Savoy Conference, IAPT bosses’ annual trade conference, welcomed with open arms the Tories’ welfare to work policies and the opportunities they offered for state funded therapy to get involved in “helping” people get off benefits and into work.

When George Osborne announced in his spring budget 2015 that he was co-locating teams of IAPT therapists in Jobcentres, that DWP employment coaches were going to be located in GP surgeries and at one point in food banks, finally some of us psy professionals woke up and realised our own professions were becoming agents of psychological terror. That our professions were allowing themselves to be drawn into the violence that is at the heart of the neoliberal project. We got together in 2015 and formed the campaigning alliance that organised this meeting.

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So, coming back to the question, what do we want from a radical Labour Party and Labour government to support and nourish the nation’s mental wealth?

Looking at this year’s Labour Manifesto:

Do I think it’s enough to talk about restoring Tory cuts to mental health services, putting more resources into attending to children and young people mental health, reasserting the need for parity of esteem with physical health, and offering a wider choice of therapy options under NICE guidelines?

Do I think it’s enough to restore Tory cuts to ESA, get rid of sanctions, the bedroom tax, WCA and PIP assessments, to talk about support and care for people who cannot work, and the social model of disability – or even Universal Basic Income?

Well, no.

Of course mental health services need more resources. The hypocrisy of every party declaring their distress at the lack of such services while doing bugger all except to cut funding further is shocking. The only way of understanding this is that mental illness is still regarded as a shameful, frightening shadow of our culture which politicians can get away with ignoring and attacking, as they do with welfare claimants.

Yes, we need more safe spaces for people with acute and severe mental health problems. We will continue to need more people with specialist trainings. And yes we need more talking therapy without a doubt.

But, FIRSTLY we need these services as part of a very different understanding of the kind of society and the kind of relationships that promote and support our mental wealth. Most of what gets called mental ill health is facilitated by the social, cultural and emotional conditions people are living in from day to day, and the conditions we have been in most of their lives.

We need housing policies, education and early years policies, transport policies, policies on working conditions, as well as health policies, that give the first priority to how people feel about themselves and their world, not to how they can be managed to maximise GDP.

And SECONDLY, absolutely crucially, if we are going to take seriously the priority of mental over material wealth at all, we need a society in which people feel that they not only have a say in how their world is developed and run; we need a society in which people feel they have THE say, the FIRST and LAST say, day to day, in how their world is organised.

Top down mental health services, administered by psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other professionals disempower and isolate individuals as mental health problems. To as high degree as possible these services need to be designed, managed and developed by service users and survivors. Professional services need to be in service, really in service, not driven by their own managerial ambitions, their profit making, or the fear of hanging on to an impossible job.

“Work remains the absolutely critical structure of social control in these capitalist societies of ours.”

For how long are we going to carry on preaching and believing in the insanity of the capitalist work ethic? That your value as a citizen is dictated by having a job? That it is your obligation to society to be in waged work? Are we absolutely bonkers?

Only 13% of people worldwide actually like going to work, according to a Gallup poll conducted in the States and published in the Washington Post October 10th 2013. According to new research by the London School of Business and Finance, which interviewed 1,000 male and female professionals of different age groups from across the UK, an overwhelming 47% want to change jobs and more than one in five are looking to career hop in the next 12 months. And over 60% of people living in poverty in the UK are in working families.

Forcing people with mental health difficulties into work says it all. Work remains the absolutely critical structure of social control in these capitalist societies of ours. Those who cannot work are to be treated as pariahs. They are the worthless lazy dependent scroungers that everyone can hate and treat with contempt – along with the homeless, the poor, the food bank users and the immigrants.

How appalling do the conditions of work have to become for us to say STOP. Something is very, very wrong. Why on earth can a parent, and especially a mother of young children, not say I don’t want to work, I want to focus on bringing up my kids?

Why is it treated as a utopian fantasy that work should be enjoyable – ‘adult play’, the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wanted to call it – that work be defined in all sorts of ways but basically as creative effort?

What the hell is wrong with us?

Yes, let’s have trade union power, workers’ power established at the centre of everyone’s working life. But also let’s get rid of the workerism that’s embedded in traditional left visions of a transformed society. We need so much more than the dignity of labour defining what life is about.

So let me just end on this. No, I don’t think more of the same is at all good enough. Yes, I think Corbyn’s Labour Party is beginning to take seriously the possibility of a world transformed. But there is a long way to go before mental wealth becomes the real standard by which we measure society and our political economy.

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2 thoughts on “How do we get mental wealth?”

  1. Reblogged this on IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK and commented:
    A Long Read for the weekend about how we achieve mental health.

    In his address to a Labour Party conference fringe event, Paul Atkinson examines the social and political forces at work in our society’s current approach to psychological distress and asks what we need from a new government to support and nourish the nation’s mental wealth.

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