​Emotional toxicity of austerity eroding mental health, say 400 experts

(Reuters / Dylan Martinez)
“Malign” welfare reforms and severe austerity measures are having a detrimental effect on Britons’ psychological and emotional wellbeing, hundreds of psychotherapists, counselors and mental health practitioners have warned.

An open letter, published by the Guardian on Friday, said the “profoundly disturbing” implications for Britons wrought by the coalition’s austerity policies have been ignored in the general election campaign so far.

The group of signatories, made up of therapists, psychotherapists and mental health experts, said Britain has seen a “radical shift” in the mental state of ordinary people since the coalition came to power.

They warned people are plagued by increasing inequality and poverty as a result of the government’s austerity policies, and this reality is generating distress across the nation.

READ MORE: Half-blind UK widow commits suicide after incapacity benefit cut

The 400 signatories, from all corners of Britain, said the government’s welfare reforms have caused emotional and mental trauma to Britons – forcing families to relocate against their will and burdening disabled, ill and unemployed benefit claimants with an intimidating benefits regime.

On a broader level, they warned British society has been ruptured by a neoliberal dogma that has serious socio-economic impacts.

British society has been “thrown completely off balance by the emotional toxicity of neoliberal thinking” and the grueling effects of this ideology are particularly visible in therapists’ consulting rooms, they said.

“This letter sounds the starting-bell for a broadly based campaign of organizations and professionals against the damage that neoliberalism is doing to the nation’s mental health,” they added.

Fit to Work: A call for reform

The letter was particularly critical of the government’s benefits sanctions scheme, which has been condemned by human rights advocates across the state as unjust, ill-conceived, ineffective and inhumane.

In particular, it said the government’s proposed policy of linking social security benefits to the receipt of “state therapy” is utterly unacceptable.

The measure, casually coined “get to work therapy,” was first mooted by Chancellor for the Exchequer George Osborne during his last budget.

But the letter’s signatories, all of whom are experts in the field of mental health, argue it is counter-productive, “anti-therapeutic” and damaging.

Although the government’s much criticized Fit for Work program will no longer be managed by disgraced contractor Atos, the letter said Maximus - the new company set to manage the nation’s work capability assessments - is an “ominous replacement.”

READ MORE: ‘Killed by cold indifference’: Protestors decry ‘plight’ of homeless

The mental health experts called upon the sector’s key professional bodies to “wake up to these malign developments” and categorically denounce this “so-called therapy” as destructive.

The signatories called upon Britain’s political parties running for election, particularly Labour, to offer a resolute pledge to “urgently review” these regressive practices and prove their “much trumpeted commitment to mental health” if they enter government.

Among the groups represented by the signatories were Britain’s Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, Disabled People Against Cuts, Psychologists Against Austerity, the Journal of Public Mental Health, and a range of academic institutions including Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, the University of London, the University of Amsterdam, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Brighton and others.

Although the coalition claims austerity is essential if the nation’s high levels of debt are to be eradicated and the disastrous economic legacy of the previous Labour government is to be addressed, progressive economists argue otherwise.

According to UK think tank the New Economics Foundation, austerity is a smokescreen for advancing a neoliberal agenda characterized by privatization, outsourcing and radical socio-economic reforms.

The think tank suggests Britain’s social and economic ills stem from an economic crisis created by banks and paid for by ordinary taxpayers.

READ MORE: ‘Britain’s inhumane welfare sanctions causing destitution & hunger’ – Church leaders

It says Britain desperately requires a shift from the tired austerity narrative that dominates mainstream British politics, and must move towards more progressive and sustainable economic policies that will free the nation from casino capitalism, boom-bust cycles and the erosion of the welfare state.

Speaking to RT on Friday, disability rights campaigner Anita Bellows denounced the coalition's welfare reforms.

“Many people with terminal illnesses have lived their last days fighting the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over their benefits,” she said.

“As welfare reform was a cost saving exercise for this government, people living already on very modest amounts of benefit were pushed over the edge and into destitution.”

Bellows, who campaigns for disability rights group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said roughly 3,000 disabled people face sanctions each month, with 500 receiving sanctions for three years.

She argued disabled people “were and are unable to compensate their loss of benefits with an income, because by definition they are unable to work.”

Reflecting on Atos’ legacy, Bellows said no one will ever place trust in a private company to conduct independent fit-to-work assessments if there are government-based expectations for results.

“It will not be different under Maximus, which has an already established record of implementing policies denying disability benefits,”she added.

READ MORE: SNP manifesto: End austerity, build a new progressive politics for 21st century Britain

Bellows laid out a number of DPAC's key demands for the next government. Among these, were a call to uphold disabled peoples' fundamental human rights - particularly their right to access health services, welfare support and "inclusive education".

She also demanded the next government "scrapthe Work Capability Assessment and replace it with a real world test, which takes into consideration claimants' skills, employability, and local job opportunities".

A spokesman for the Conservative Party told RT the party believes mental health should be treated in the same manner as physical health.

“But for too long, that was not the case – so we legislated for parity of esteem, meaning they’ll be treated with equal priority,” he said.

“Our long-term economic plan means we’ve been able to increase spending on the NHS by £12.9 billion. This has meant that we can put £400 million into improving access to psychological therapies.”

“We are also investing £1.25 billion into funding service improvement, particularly for children. And from April 2016 we are introducing the first waiting time standards for mental health treatments so no one should have to wait longer than 18 weeks for talking therapies.”

A spokesperson for Labour said mental health “is the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age.”

“It’s essential that we give mental health the priority it deserves if we are to thrive as a nation and ensure the NHS remains sustainable for the future,” he said.

He argued it was Labour that forced the coalition government to “write parity of esteem between physical and mental health into law,” and that the party is committed to implementing this policy if elected in May.

The spokesman pledged Labour will bring an end to the “scandal of the neglect of child mental health.”

“It is simply not right that when three quarters of adult mental illnesses begin in childhood, children’s mental health services get just six per cent of the mental health budget.”