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Should people with mental health problems be compelled into treatment on pain of losing their benefits?
Posted by
15th Jul 2014

This week the Government announced its proposal to make talking therapies mandatory for people who are on benefits due to their mental health problems, but are deemed fit to work. Marjorie Wallace, our Chief Executive, shared her views, but what is it like to hear the news if you are someone on benefits?

We have received many comments from SANE supporters, who believe that the proposals are ‘unworkable’, show ‘little knowledge of mental health’ and bring them great fear. One supporter, Danny90, has told us his experience of being on benefits because of his mental health, and what the new plans mean to him.

The news came through on the radio: “Hundreds of thousands of people on benefits for anxiety, depression or mental health problems are to be assessed within weeks. Those who do not agree to treatment and being helped into work will lose their benefits. Ministers are drawing up plans combining support to find employment, with treatment programmes for mental health sufferers.”

If you heard this too, what was your first reaction? Mine was fear, then disbelief. Some questions came to mind at once.

Can the state force people into medical treatment? Do they have the legal right to coerce someone into healthcare? Isn’t it down to individual choice? What does the law say?

Then came the other questions:

What kind of healthcare treatment carries an inbuilt threat, as this one does, of being plunged into severe poverty and homelessness if you don’t or can’t attend? How can that possibly be healthcare? What health benefits can it hope to offer, seeing as everyone attending will be nervously preoccupied by: “Am I going to lose my benefits? What do I do if that happens? How soon can I know?” Let’s face it – these are the only things people coerced into this “treatment” will have going on in their minds. Why bother kidding on it’s a beneficial “healthcare programme” offering treatment for anxiety and depression!

What exactly are these “treatment programmes”?

What does this “treatment” by government order consist of? How and where is it being done? Who are the staff doing it? What are their qualifications and experience? Does this “treatment” mean being questioned by psychiatrists and/or “healthcare professionals” all the time, and having your movements monitored over weeks, then asked even more questions? In my experience, much psychiatric “help” consisted of endless interrogation, often about highly personal, painful, or sometimes banal, or practical matters. They pressurise you for everything you’ve got and scribble the answers down and file them away somewhere. It doesn’t ever lead to anything. There was never any guidance on how to live, no insight into why things happened as they did, or suggestions of what was wrong – just question after question after question all to no apparent point. It was sometimes aggressive. I don’t know how anyone could think this helps people.

“Treatment” can mean being bullied and humiliated into admitting personal secrets, history and problems to a stranger who offers nothing in return, and in intimidating circumstances. A lot of people may well be about to be forced into having this done to them. Some people are OK about it, and even find it helpful. Others find it embarrassing, intrusive and harmful.

What if you don’t want “treatment”?

What if your experiences of it in the past were traumatic and caused damage? Surely anyone has the right to refuse “treatment” if they don’t want it? Having worked with the very elderly and severely ill in the past, I learned if a patient doesn’t want a particular treatment, regardless of whether it’s in their best interest, then that treatment doesn’t go ahead. No means no. It’s a core human right. If you don’t want this, you don’t want it. I certainly don’t want state-run mental health treatment ever again. Does the government have a right to insist I do?

It has taken me years to get strong again after bad experiences in state psychiatric “care”. I’m not going back to that. I feel my human rights violated if this government demands I must.

How do others feel about being forced into this? Please write in.

Where does the government’s assurance that mental health problems are curable thanks to “treatment programmes”, (or that they’re curable at all), come from?

Has the government made exceptional recent progress in these research areas without telling anyone? If so, expect the unveiling of some revolutionary medical breakthroughs very soon!

Isn’t the cost of this going to be vast?

 Where are all these practitioners going to be magically conjured up from, and at what cost to the taxpayer? Will it be another ATOS-style shambles, with some outsourced vast company like G4S or Serco charging hundreds of millions of pounds? Let’s all make a point of finding out exactly how much it’s going to cost.

How much renewed intolerance and prejudice towards the mentally ill, and trivialising of depression, will this latest government attitude awaken in right wing Britain? “Depressed? Aww, diddums. Get a job.” Despite the brilliant efforts of SANE and by dedicated people in the public eye, like Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax and Russell Brand, there’s still a lot of nastiness and scapegoating towards sufferers of mental problems, depression and drug or alcohol addictions. This is now likely to plumb new self-righteous depths thanks to this latest government inquisition.

It will still take time to convince people depression is a serious illness and isn’t about Poor Me, I Feel Depressed. It’s an insidious, strange, hidden illness that doesn’t announce itself. Like carbon monoxide poisoning; it creeps up on you and you don’t know anything’s wrong. Only a few weeks later do you think: “Hmm, was I a bit depressed back then perhaps?”

Who says mental illness sufferers aren’t already working?

I’m trying to work, though my contribution might not be anything much. I’m sure you’re working too, or planning to and wanting to? And I bet it’s on your own terms. We’re not stupid, we know that watching daytime TV and doing nothing makes anyone suicidal, so we most of us don’t do it, even though the government’s desperate to make out we do.

If this government sincerely believes mental health sufferers are in fact charlatans who go to all these lengths purely to watch Noel Edmonds every day, then this government’s got things more wrong than anyone thought.

 I’m not proud of the things I try to work at, as nothing’s really come together yet, and maybe never fully will. I’ve campaigned to try and protect parks and open spaces for seven years; I’m 200 pages into writing the second draft of a (not very good) book, I help local people who are elderly, I provided day care and companionship to a local retired lady for eight years, and I help local authors and journalists when they get into a muddle with work. I’ve never taken money for any of the above, it doesn’t feel right; I’ve accepted state money paid by my friends and relatives’ taxes, I want to repay by doing things they need.

I bet I’m not the only one who lives like this. How many of you fellow “hundreds of thousands”, who are about to be weighed and measured, interrogated, degraded and patronised by the government are also striving to make good, and on the only terms you really can, ie, just being allowed to get on with it? That’s how it works; we need space to evolve into the place where we can get off benefits into jobs people actually need and we actually want to do.

Re: “support to find employment”. Are there any jobs? Are there likely to be any available to unemployed people with health problems that won’t aggravate and jeopardise their conditions?

Today’s choices: either no jobs at all, or zero-hours contracts in pound shops, or being shunted onto courses (often run by vastly expensive outsourced companies paid for by taxpayers); courses that lead to jobs that don’t exist, or don’t pay a living wage. The modern work market is a disaster. Having been involved in environmental campaigning, I’ve seen it has also brought about newly invented jobs which are destructive and unneeded. This is the case with an oversubscribed and largely unregulated industry called tree surgery, which has led to widespread chainsawing of trees with nothing wrong with them.

Similarly, overstaffing of government gardening contracts has led to teams of men walking around parks and open spaces with leaf-blowers blaring at illegal sound levels, blowing up toxic dust, often for hours at a time, every week of the year, regardless of the machine’s intended use for autumn only. These jobs are unneeded and cause public distress and health hazards. Sadly, their numbers increase each time the government does a new “dole purge”.

The government prefers to spend £400 a week paying for a new local authority job no one wants, which the worker dislikes, and which wrecks the environment, rather than spend £180 a week on benefits and housing for that person.

Forcing volatile, confused people with mental health disorders into a work-market which can only be described as one big disorder in its own right, is going to lead to all sorts of problems, like relapses, breakdowns, psychotic episodes and suicides. The bottom line: isn’t all this going to end up costing a more money than keeping people on benefits?

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