Friday June 26, 2015
There is a meeting today at 1.30pm at the Streatham Memorial Gardens. I shall be there early. The meeting will gather together a group of people, perhaps 100, maybe more judging from the Facebook page, who will then march up the road, not far, to the Streatham Job Centre. It is a mark of our varying dissatisfactions with the Government’s idea to put CBT therapists in Job Centres in a supposed attempt to get people ‘off the dole and back to work’.
What a beautiful day for a protest, the roses are blooming and the birds are singing. I barely have time to look at the statue with its inscription To Our Glorious Dead and the list of names inscribed below – it’s 1.15pm and already there are 12 people standing in the shade of the trees, and two are holding up a banner which the other ten are photographing. The gist of the banner is this: ‘CBT practitioners: are you a professional or a collaborator?’
I set to work introducing myself and asking people why they have bothered to come today.
“It’s a human right to be able to refuse medical treatment. To not be made to be part of an experiment. It’s written in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.”
“I’m just gutted. Council Houses, Brixton Arches, rent increases, everything.”
“I want to support people facing cuts to their allowances. I have friends with distress who are scared by the way things work.”
“It seems a really bad idea to combine a disciplinary system with social care.”
The next person turns out to be a national spokesperson for the Green Party:
“the Government is crossing a line – it’s written in their Manifesto, their intention is clear. Don’t believe them when they say there’s no coercion, it’s written in their Manifesto.”
“Its an inappropriate setting – it is not a place to speak freely, which it should be for any therapy”.
“It’s wrong to make a mental health service part of a sanction system.”
“To cut public spending, they are hitting the most vulnerable.”
“It’s clearly wrong.”
“Mental Health isn’t something you can flick a switch and fix”.
“The problem, in my opinion, is that we live in a system which makes us ill – unemployment, poverty. Actually I’m doing therapy, CBT, over there [points just over the main road which is throbbing with traffic fighting its way into the narrowing Streatham High Road]. The services become part of the problem. They mean well, the people who work there, but it’s done in a way that, well you are made to feel uncooperative if you turn it down. And the political, social situation is not up for discussion – these are the things we really need to talk about if we are going to get better.”
“The problem with CBT is that it makes you the problem, and tries to change your attitude.”
“Debt. Struggling with debt leads to suicide.”
“I’m horrified, instead of funding mental health services in clinical settings, I had to wait six months for CBT – why not fund it more in places where people actually go to talk about their health?”
“My girlfriend is terrified, and has taken on the language of officialdom. She says that she is a ‘shirker’! She is terrified of psychiatrists, of the ways of the medical system. She feels like a terrible burden on everybody. She has been invited to go to job centres, I go with her, but she panics in waiting rooms, and she panics when she sees the security guards – it freaks her out. She was on DLA, and they said ‘would you like to work?’, and she said ‘Yes, I would like to work!’ and they said ‘we will help you to go to work’. So we went there together, I held her hand, she wanted to work, but her expectations were really unrealistic.”
“Its funny, they speak of parity don’t they, of parity between mental health and physical health. So, if you break your leg and can’t work, will they send you to the job centre to fix it?”
“It’s about dignity. My partner has worked, she has paid her National Insurance, she has contributed, but now she has taken on their vocabulary, she calls herself a burden…”
“Treatment should be voluntary. If the Job Centre should suggest that people go to the Doctor, well, are they qualified to tell people to go to the doctor? If I was working in a Job Centre I would be very uncomfortable raising it with people, because you have to be very diplomatic when you suggest to someone that they might need counselling. Even when your friend says so, you might feel offended! I mean, you have a personal relation with your job centre advisor when you are unemployed, you don’t want them prying into your personal life, do you? You have to be careful if you speak to someone about their mental health, it could be negligent to raise the question, it is a bit like the oppression we associate with Russia. When I was unemployed you had to sit in an open plan office every day for two weeks, and look for work. There were people who lectured you about looking for work. There were a lot of vulnerable there then. Imagine if you had to raise the question of mental health with someone who is clearly in distress and struggling. It could be negligent, are the people in the job centre qualified?”
“How dare they take food away from someone, it’s against Human Rights.”
“It is a symptom of our civilisation’s discontent, and therefore, worth punctuating. It might not be necessary, never mind possible, to remove it.”
By this time there were about 60 people gathered in the Memorial Gardens, some holding placards and banners and others taking photos. I asked one man what he planned to do with his photos. It turned out he was a freelance photographer commissioned by the South London Press to cover the demo.
Two women picked up the sticks to the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy banner. They were sisters, and they had another sister with a learning difficulty. They told me that they were ‘watching’ and ‘listening’ to what was happening in the country with the politics, and she said, we have noticed that ‘they go for the weakest first’.
Now we start slowly to muster together and walk across the road. A bloke rolled down his lorry’s window and shouted, “Get outta the fucking road, go get a fucking job”.
While we edge ourselves in amongst the traffic and saunter up the main lanes of the road, I recognise someone who used to run a psychotherapy service in one of the big London hospitals. “I used to be head of psychotherapy” he said, “and I would have been raising hell against a move like this made by the management”. Who’s the head of therapy now? I asked. “A CBT guy”, he replied with a rye smile. And is he raising hell against this new policy? A derisive laugh was all that I could hear of the reply amongst the roar of the traffic and the shouts of the London drivers, who only wanted to move fast and not think about us.
The paradox had not escaped her, so how had it escaped our civil servants and government ministers?
Someone next to me said that she was concerned about therapy being put next to the Job Centre function because “it puts fear into people’s minds,” then added, “which is not desirable.”
“It is the very thing isn’t it, fear,” she went on. “This is what CBT people try to resolve, isn’t it? Yet the people who might need it most would be the ones most vulnerable to exactly this kind of fear.” The paradox had not escaped her, so how had it escaped our civil servants and government ministers, one wonders?
People with a microphone are raising our spirits with their strong voices. There is a discreet police presence up the hill, and down the hill, and the security guards in the building are checking people’s ‘tickets’ before letting any one in. Too late! An advance guard has snuck into the building and is creeping up the stairs as we listen to the man with the mic doing his best to rouse the rabble. A few people take it in turns to move the crowd through the mic, and then a cheer goes up, and everyone moves to the other side of the street and looks up at the top floor of the building. A large red banner is unfurling in the wind with the words ‘Back To Work Therapy Is No Therapy At All’. It is now 2.30pm.
Someone with the microphone is haranguing Ian Duncan Smith and talking about the suicides of people who have lost their benefit, and I remember Stevie Smith’s (no relation) wonderful poem ‘Not Waving, but Drowning’: Nobody heard him, the dead man, but still he lay moaning.
Nobody heard him? We can hear him because he is not yet fully dead, only half dead, still moaning. Threatened and pushed out of the symbolic order, off the benefits, deprived of a means to live with his dignity, turned into an object, treated as any old piece of rubbish, but not yet dead. Not yet.
In April 1953 Stevie Smith wrote her poem Not Waving but Drowning. On 1 July 1953 she self-harmed in the office and her doctor decreed that she is not emotionally stable enough to go back to work. She was retired with a small pension, and dedicated her life to writing and looking after her ailing aunt. In 1957, the publication of her collection under the heading Not Waving but Drowning established her firmly as a major poet worldwide and opens a new life for her of poetry readings and broadcasts. She soon becomes a cult poet and is sought after by the likes of John Betjeman, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath.
Should we, perhaps, rather put poetry into Job Centres, and save the CBT for somewhere more fitting?
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.