Tag Archives: counselling

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 update: Letters to the press on the general election

Dear colleagues,

The Alliance has taken a lead in organising two recent press letters, aimed at the election campaign, on government policies around people with disabilities and the nation’s mental health.

In the Daily Mirror:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/must-defeat-tories-sake-mental-10494187

And last week, this appeared in the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/18/vote-labour-to-uphold-the-rights-of-disabled-people

For us, an important and exciting development over the past few years has been the involvement of therapists in campaigns of a wide nature, including  disability, psycho-compulsion, workfare, benefit cuts, and mental health. Crucially, these have been campaigns in which psychotherapists, counsellors, psychologists and other professionals have for the first time joined service users and welfare campaigners to plan and participate in protest, political lobbying and street actions on issues of social and psychological politics.

The initiatives for these alliances and for a more strident intervention in the social and political field have not come from the establishment of our profession (the regulatory professional bodies like BACP, UKCP, BABCP, BPC, BPS and RCP) whose voices have been slow to rise above the careful comprises of ‘realpolitik’, but from the growing energy of radical, more grass-roots organisations like the Alliance, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, Psychologists for Social Change, the Free Psychotherapy Network and the Social Work Action Network.

If you agree with the broad sentiments in the letters, we’d be most grateful if you would circulate and share the links far and wide through all your networks, including tweeting and social networking.

You can for the moment contribute your own comments below the line of the Mirror letter – please do! Thanks very much for your support.

Our warm regards,

Paul Atkinson (for the Alliance)

UEA Course Closures – An Attack on Values

The University of East Anglia (UEA) has decided to axe its renowned counselling courses, including the flagship intensive Post-Graduate Diploma in Person-Centred Therapy, from which I graduated in the late 90s. It is twenty years since I applied for a place on this course, two decades since I first held the role of ‘counsellor’ in a conversation, and I’ve worked in and written about counselling and psychotherapy ever since, with many formative experiences along the way. Yet UEA, the course, the staff and students, the Centre for Counselling Studies and the University Counselling Service are all tattooed onto my psyche as a practitioner.

The psycho-geography hums with resonance – the flattening lands around the A11 up to Norwich, the walk into campus from the Unthank Road, the iconic ziggurat buildings, high up from which the counselling rooms once gazed. I sat with my first clients in those stacked glass and concrete boxes, held and encouraged and distracted and moved by the big-skied view across the lake and the acres of shifting weather, which would nonetheless dissolve into irrelevance most sessions.

I attended personal development groups in these rooms too, grappling with the entwined attitudes of acceptance, empathy and authenticity. Seeing the value of the form, I once plumped for a private weekend encounter group in the same space – hours with a bunch of strangers from beyond the course, the first day running open-endedly into the evening as the room’s squared windows blackened to an array of mirrors. Given the intensive, full-time nature of the training programme either side of that weekend, I realise now I must have spent 12 days straight completely immersed in varying forms of experiential work, plus supervision, counselling practice and skills and theory sessions, with only two days break at each end (when assignments would’ve been emerging from my primitive word processor).

Later, after the diploma ended, I would return to co-facilitate a similar group experience and occasionally visited Norwich semi-socially, but always via my connection with the training and the therapy community around it. Although I no longer have contact with most of my fellow students, I gained one deep and ongoing friendship and still speak here and there with people connected to UEA.

But so what? Perhaps my disquiet at UEA’s decision to scrap the courses might be construed as nostalgic. Things change, don’t they? Tattoos bleed into the surrounding skin, lose their vibrancy, and whatever meaning they hold for the subject – and sometimes it is a sense of a long since departed self – they are at best curious adornments to everyone else.

Perhaps. But I think the loss at UEA has a significance beyond my own idiosyncratic history.

‘Say the right things, when electioneering…’

In the same year that I applied to UEA, Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power on the back of a desire for change. It was 1997 and pop culture fizzed with champagne bubbles and cocaine-dashed nostrils. A rampant patriotism – initially art-school-ironic and then stadium-flag-literal – was busy ignoring or shouting down the prophetic gloom of Radiohead’s latest album, OK Computer, released that same year. In spite – or perhaps because – of its incongruence with the times, the album was nonetheless lauded critically and was wildly successful commercially – it’s anguished cry from Britpop’s shadow cutting through the din of the party.

I heard OK Computer to death in my job at what we optimistically still called a record shop (actually a video and CD chain store) but just recently, in advance of the album being re-issued next month, I’ve been giving it another spin, which is where – unexpectedly – our nostalgia thesis begins to unravel. Because there is little rose-tinted comfort in revisiting these songs. As they hit their twentieth anniversary, we – the citizens of 2017 – find ourselves not in Blur’s chirpy Parklife or in a big-hearted mass sing-along at an Oasis concert, but in the very atomised, alienated, divided and tech-engulfed times that Radiohead’s stunning, if overplayed, work of art-rock predicted, and about which it voiced a bleak but very human form of protest.

‘One day, I am gonna grow wings…’

The Person-Centred Approach (PCA) was – and arguably still is – another protest against the state of things, albeit one rooted in a model of potentiality and growth, rather than alienated despair. It emerged in the US as a critique of – and embodied alternative to – the psychoanalytic and behaviourist strangleholds on individual subjectivity, and spoke of a ‘quiet revolution’. It certainly challenged the power of the highly medicalised psychiatric and psychotherapeutic establishments, both theoretically and in practice.

As counselling gradually grew in legitimacy here in the UK, establishing its own organisations, literature and courses, the development of UEA’s person-centred training in the early 90s had a similar sense of creative protest. While the PCA had become a mainstream approach in the British therapy field – with one of its core texts (co-authored by the UEA course director) on the way to being one of the best-selling counselling books of all time in the UK – it still stood in counter-cultural contrast to some of the evolving norms of the emerging profession, which in any case remained relatively – by today’s standards – on the margins of our culture.

It was (and still is) rare for the PCA to be taught in a university setting, yet the UEA programme offered post-graduate training that remained defiantly values congruent: it had a deeply experiential approach; it was highly focused on the personal development of the practitioner; the spiritual and political dimensions of therapy were core themes; and completion of the course was through self- and peer-assessment. And this congruence between theory, principle and practice was also expressed socially through its embeddedness within the campus and city communities: trainees had placements within the university student counselling service and were encouraged to take up linked placements within the city. In my time there, students offered counselling in a diverse range of settings, from an insurance company, to voluntary sector services, to my own placement working with inmates at Norwich prison.

Following the 2003 retirement of the founding director, a prominent figure in the professions, the Centre for Counselling Studies maintained a high profile internationally within both the PCA and the counselling field generally. It staged a number of conferences and developed a successful Masters and PhD programme and towards the end of the noughties was undertaking qualitative and quantitative research into ‘outcomes’ at the University Counselling Service.

But sources at UEA suggest that this research was effectively ‘buried’. Then, around 2011-12, the university withdrew the team’s ‘Centre’ status and some of the associated funding, reducing it to little more than a teaching operation for the courses. The ‘Centre’ title, I’m told, was reinstated around 2014 as a branding exercise for the trainings but the staff budget allowed for no research or enterprise remit to expand its international profile. Then, in a typically Kafka-esque turn, the diminished Centre’s lack of research and enterprise was taken by the university as a sign of its ‘failings’, which brings us to the recent decision to axe it completely.

Many people, not least the students themselves and the local MP, have rightly challenged the wisdom of this decision on the grounds that it is unfair to existing trainees who were hoping to progress onto the higher level courses and – crucially – that it will drastically cut the availability of the real, in-depth counselling provided by diploma students, both in the wider Norwich community and at the university itself, where short-term CBT-based mental health support and group work is little compensation, as this moving post from a person who used the service makes crystal clear.

‘It’s just business…’

This is exactly what’s been happening in other sectors, of course, particularly the NHS, where instrumental, short-term models (therapy-lite, if you will) have become dominant. These are ideally adapted to the current, highly medicalised regime around mental health, with its diagnose-treat-cure approach to human distress. In its atomised conception of people and quick-fix mentality, this is in turn ideally suited to our current political and socio-economic conditions – often referred to as ‘neo-liberalism’ – in which therapy’s role is perceived by the State and its agencies to be simply to return ‘ill’ workers (or students) to their jobs (or studies) after a short course of ‘evidence-based treatment’.

In all levels of education, one impact of this neo-liberal order has been to prioritise the needs of business over both critical thinking and holistic personal development. In higher education (HE) especially, organisations are run as businesses themselves, with students considered consumers and staff expected to be compliant employees. The institution’s branding must not be tarnished because it needs to compete with rivals in the marketplace and generate as much income as possible. This can create a climate of fear, particularly when the organisational agenda begins to turn against a specific department or area, as appears to have happened at UEA.

These aren’t the kind of conditions in which in-depth counselling trainings are likely to thrive. While the courses might be in demand and over-subscribed, they can also be costlier than some other programmes, due to the intensive, experiential element, which requires plenty of contact time between staff and students. In discussing the events at UEA with colleagues, I learned that a number of other long-established counselling courses in HE have closed or been threatened with closure in recent years.

How does this fit with our culture’s contemporary interest in addressing ‘mental health’? Well, in one sense, it’s obviously completely at odds with it; but it also highlights how not all ways of responding to psychological distress are valued within the cultural and economic conditions I sketch above. While we are talking about mental health more than ever – which part of me welcomes because a decrease in shame, embarrassment or toxic silence is a good thing – unfortunately most of the talk is funnelled through a very narrow channel of acceptability: our distress must be seen as ‘just like any other illness’ and therefore the treatments must be medicalised and efficient. This is therapy as a drug-like healthcare intervention (with the reductionist ‘evidence’ to match) rather than it being a relational, exploratory dialogue – a meaning-making human encounter.

So courses such as UEA’s person-centred training are not only a bit expensive to run, in a highly competitive and monetised system, but also they represent a direct challenge to the prevailing ideology in education, mental health and the culture at large. I’m sure many of us would hope that this kind of critical, creative and counter-cultural thinking and practice would be encouraged by our universities – even when it’s not much of an earner – but clearly this is no longer the case.

‘Fitter, happier, more productive…’

Tellingly, UEA is maintaining its training programmes in a highly manualised form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which feed directly into the NHS Improving Access to the Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. The training resides in the Clinical Psychology department of the university’s Medical School. If you look at the web page, there’s a link for ‘IAPT and Other Modalities’ (meaning non-CBT approaches), which leads to an otherwise blank page saying, Coming soon. Let’s not hold our breath on that one.

IAPT has come in for heavy criticism on many fronts: using an overly manualised and bureaucratised (i.e. de-humanised) healthcare approach; discriminating against other therapies (and the clients who want them) due to a narrow and inappropriately medicalised understanding of evidence; massaging data to claim greater success; having absurdly long waiting lists and a dysfunctional triage system; not taking care of its staff, who burn out quickly; unethically colluding with the efforts of the Department for Work & Pensions to reduce the welfare bill; and more.

In my own work, I fairly regularly hear from people with unhelpful experiences of IAPT, not least that a person’s history – their childhood experiences particularly – are barely considered. Huge losses, abuses or other deeply significant events that clients begin to explore in counselling within the first session or two, might never even have come up with their IAPT practitioner. Yet across all therapy sectors outside of the private sphere, the pressure is to follow the NHS model, as if its legitimacy is unquestionable, as if its version of what distress means, and how we should respond to it, is reality itself.

This then delegitimises all other responses to distress, however valued they are by the people who use them. In my own sector, counselling in further and higher education, I have seen this creep occurring first-hand. The professional division for the field (BACP UC) recently followed its parent organisation’s desires by creating a ‘competency framework’ based on the same CBT-derived Roth & Pilling/UCL methodology that we see in UEA’s IAPT training. This despite the fact that relational work – humanistic, person-centred, psychodynamic, integrative – is far more widely practised in the sector. While the framework apparently welcomes all models of therapy, it is nonetheless skewed to a technocratic and instrumental healthcare approach, and has alienated a number of highly experienced practitioners in the sector who do not recognise their work in the final document.

‘We are standing on the edge…’

Where, then, do we go from here? On the brink of a general election, with a very different Labour opposition to that of 1997 but a very familiar Conservative government, which is apparently emboldened by the country’s divisions, how do we shift the language and practices around ‘mental health’ away from the thin comforts of ‘illness’ and ‘treatment’? How do we take back human distress from its enclosure by neoliberalism, healthcare and the State, and re-integrate it into our everyday lives and relationships so that we can respond with ordinary compassion, rather than professionalised diagnosis and treatment, even (or perhaps especially) when we seek out a therapist to discuss our concerns?

What still excites me about the spirit of the Person-Centred Approach, is its deeply respectful commitment to the right to self-determination; to the inherent value and potential in subjectivity; to honouring the connectedness between us as persons in a social world; to witnessing, exploring and embracing all of this with a principled and creative not-knowing, rather than dogmatic expertise. It is these precious things – despite all the mental health policies, initiatives and media campaigns – that we see being lost at UEA and beyond.

Recently, a small controversy bubbled up at UEA about the appearance of Anthony Gormley’s life-size human statues on the roofs of its concrete structures. One looks out from a building behind the ziggurats, gazing across the same land and skies as the view from the counselling rooms. It is mesmerising, unsettling, challenging. Some have complained they are reminiscent of suicide.

In a BBC interview, Gormley said,

‘These works are nothing to do with suicide, they’re actually to do with life… Universities are places where people spend a lot of time thinking about the thoughts of others… I think it’s a wonderful place to balance that intellectual life with an object that is silent. It doesn’t need to be read. It has to be felt, it has to be lived with.’

Let’s hope the statues are a defiant symbol of the persistence of these values and aspirations, rather than a memorial to their passing.


Song lyrics from Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Andy Rogers is a counsellor and service coordinator in a large FE and HE college, a registered member of BACP, and has written about the politics of therapy and the person-centred approach for the best part of twenty years.

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.

Government Attack on Benefits Claimants: A Message from the Alliance

In response to the latest Government attack on benefits claimants with mental health and physical disabilities, the Alliance has written to the press and to the major psy-organisations, who we call upon to take a much more critical stance on these issues. See both letters below.


Letter to the Psy-Organisations

Dear Senior and Representative Colleagues,

The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy is part of the Mental Wealth Alliance that has been engaging with most of the addressees of this e-mail. We have asked that you distance yourself from the DWP in an unmistakeable way and take up a much more combative and critical stance in relation to what is happening to ‘welfare’.

We assume that you are aware of the latest DWP issue referred to by the Daily Mirror and many other media outlets. If not: Tory ministers have rewritten the law to deny increased disability benefit payments to more than 150,000 people

The response we get is that your organisations are doing all that can be done and that there is no difference between your position and that of the Mental Wealth Alliance.

It is time to put your money where your mouth is and start to exert pressure on the DWP to operate in a more equitable, consistent and honest manner.

We believe that your various memberships are expecting this, and we urge you not to follow what is effectively, a collusive path. True, by muting protest you retain your access to the seats of power. But, in these circumstances, this is simply not the proper attitude to maintain.

Below, please find the letter sent by the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy to the Daily Mirror and other newspapers. Will you take similar or analogous actions?

Yours sincerely,

Paul Atkinson and Professor Andrew Samuels (for the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy)


Letter to National News Media

The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy is a nationally recognised interest group of mental health professionals from diverse clinical and academic backgrounds. We were appalled to learn that last Friday, February 24th, without consultation or warning, the Government launched yet another vicious attack on the psychological, as well as financial resources of benefit claimants with mental health and physical disabilities (Tory ministers have rewritten the law to deny increased disability benefit payments to more than 150,000 people Daily Mirror, 24 Feb).

Emergency legislation has over-ridden the rulings of two tribunals that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should expand the reach of Personal Independence Payments (PIP). At stake is mobility support for over 140,000 people who suffer “overwhelming psychological distress” when travelling alone, and more than 1,000 people who need help to take medication and monitor a health condition. The courts ruled both categories of support needed to be included in the PIP assessment of people’s needs. The DWP itself admits this will include for example those who have a learning disability, diabetes, epilepsy, anxiety or dementia.

In September 2016, Theresa May and her DWP ministers promised there would be no more welfare cuts on top of the string of draconian measures agreed last year as the final contribution of Cameron and Osborne’s campaign to punish those who cannot work. It seems her promise was another lie. With delicious irony, Disabilities Minister Penny Mordaunt said this latest move would “make sure we are giving support to those who need it most”. Meanwhile on Marr this Sunday, Tory party chairman Patrick McGloughlin responded to criticism of the emergency legislation by stating “as far as supporting disabled people in this country is concerned, we do very proudly”.

This is a government determined, come hell or high water, to strip welfare provision to the absolute bone, an ideological commitment it justifies in terms of the fiscal necessity of austerity savings and the therapeutic magic for all benefit claimants of getting themselves into work. As mental health professionals, we find it tragic and painful to be living through a period in which the social contract between the advantaged and the disadvantaged is under full-frontal attack.

More particularly, we find it shameful that our own professional bodies – psychotherapists, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists – continue to participate in the abuse of human rights and of their own ethical codes through their involvement in the psycho-compulsion of benefits complainants through the DWP’s workfare and Work and Health policies.

We call on the government to reverse its policies of welfare cuts as a minimum step to honouring Theresa May’s promises for a fairer deal for those struggling to cope to maintain any decent conditions of life. And we call upon our fellow ‘psy’ professionals to now insist on a withdrawal of all involvement in supporting the psychological coercion and punishment by the DWP of the most disadvantaged members of our society.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Atkinson and Professor Andrew Samuels (for the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy)

 

BACP backtrack on audit consultation

Counsellors and psychotherapists following the controversy around BACP’s audit consultation survey might be aware that the organisation has issued an apology: ‘We are really sorry. We’ve messed up!’ they say. But what precisely are they sorry about?

‘Our intention with the survey is not simply to introduce all or any of the ideas it contains, but rather to gather opinion and inspire debate. We recognise that we haven’t been at all clear on this point and that this has caused some members considerable concern. We’re very sorry that we didn’t make things clear from the outset.’

Let’s break that down a little. The intention of the survey (and its proposals for mystery shoppers, practice inspections and a fundamental shift in the nature of the supervisory relationship) was only ‘to gather opinion and inspire debate’?

If that was the intention, then an email survey to members with a mostly multiple-choice tick-box format and limited space for longer responses seems a less than ideal way to gather opinion. As for inspiring debate, the space for that was limited, not least because hardly anyone seemed able or willing to make a reasoned case for the proposals, not even BACP themselves, who made no meaningful attempt to articulate a substantive argument, beyond the fact that such measures are used by ‘other [non-therapy] professional bodies and regulators’. And let’s not forget that BACP initially responded to those writing to the BACP journal, Therapy Today, to say they would not publish the letters, which would be forwarded instead to the consultation team (a decision they have now reversed). If the intention was to inspire open debate within the organisation, this seems a strange way to go about it.

Now BACP have apologised – but, if we look at the text of the apology, what they are sorry for is a lack of clarity about their intentions: ‘we haven’t been at all clear on this point and… this has caused some members considerable concern.’

In this version of the furore around the consultation, it is as if members’ concerns were generated by a miscommunication about, and misunderstanding of, the purpose of the survey, which BACP says was ‘not simply to introduce all or any of the ideas it contains’. So BACP simply misspoke, as an on-the-ropes politician might put it, and members then misunderstood their benign intentions. They are sorry for upsetting people, in other words, but not for being wrong.

This spin on events demonstrates a convenient misunderstanding of the disquiet the survey created. BACP members who got in touch with the Alliance certainly thought that the survey was an inappropriate tool for the kind of questions being asked, but mostly they were disturbed by the fact – unchanged by the apology – that BACP would seriously consider such measures as appropriate for the therapy field.

The frantic backpedalling, then, distracts from the deeper concerns raised by the survey, which the apology does little – if anything – to address. Why would BACP ask for members’ views on specific changes to the audit process unless they consider those changes, or something like them, to be a) possible or workable, and b) of some potential value? Someone somewhere at BACP must think such methods could be a runner, or why bother asking members about them? And even if these specific proposals get (temporarily?) binned, we are still left with BACP’s apparent desire for more surveillance and control in an effort to pull therapy into line with ‘other professions’, regardless of the gaping absence of evidence that such a move would either enhance therapeutic work or ‘protect the public’.

Whatever is happening at BACP HQ, the executive agenda seems to be drifting further and further from both the realities of actual practice and the values of its members. The feeling in communications we’ve had around this issue is that the survey was something of a last straw for many practitioners; that they have already tolerated much from BACP that is incongruent with therapeutic principles and that this is just a step too far. There are already huge demands placed on practitioners attempting to sustain the unique qualities of the therapeutic space in the face of toxic cultural trends but it becomes intolerable when these efforts are betrayed by their own professional bodies.

Might the PR disaster of the survey nudge BACP’s leaders into supporting its members by articulating what’s different – and therefore so valuable – about therapy, rather than attempting to homogenise, control and rebrand the field?