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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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How do we get mental wealth? Labour Party Conference Fringe Event this weekend

If you’re in or near Brighton this weekend, check out this Labour Party Conference Fringe event on Sunday, led by mental health survivors and radical psy professionals, including the Mental Health Resistance Network, the Free Psychotherapy Network and the Alliance. All welcome (not just LP members).

For more than 30 years, we’ve suffered the violent exploitation and extraction of our mental wealth by successive governments pursuing neoliberal policies. So where are we now? And what do we need from a Labour Government?

How Do We Get Mental Wealth? Event details here

6 – 8pm, Sunday 24 September 2017. Ashdown Room, Holiday Inn, 137 King’s Road, Brighton BN1 2JF. Wheelchair accessible.

Alliance video: protest against New Savoy Conference of psy-organisations

The Mental Wealth Foundation, supported by The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, challenge attendees at the 2017 New Savoy Conference.

Why, despite some of the recent rhetoric, are the professional psychological organisations colluding with the Department of Work & Pensions view that being out of work is a pathology requiring treatment? Why support psycho-compulsion by working in environments in which those claiming benefits can be coerced into a distorted form of counselling and psychotherapy? Why support the emergence of State therapy?

OiOiSaveloy from Denis Postle on Vimeo.

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

‘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.