It’s interesting the way British public policy is beginning to bring together unemployment policy with mental health policy. The British government today brought out a 10-year strategy for dealing with depression, which includes the key strategy of doing more to get the mentally ill back into work. For example, under the new strategy, job centres will now have mental health advisors.
The same day the government released its report, the Young Foundation – one of the main think-tanks behind the British ‘politics of wellbeing’, released its own report, suggesting that the welfare state needed to transform to be more focused on well-being, including helping the out of work cope with the emotional problems that often go with unemployment.
The head of the think-tank, Geoff Mulgan, says: “The welfare state that was built up after the great economic crisis of the 1930s was designed to address Britain’s material needs – for jobs, homes, health care and pensions. It was assumed that people’s emotional needs would be met by close-knit families and communities. Sixty years later psychological needs have become as pressing as material ones – the risk of loneliness and isolation, the risk of mental illness, the risk of being left behind.”
We already saw the beginning of the merger of unemployment policy with mental health policy in 2005, when Lord Layard, the government advisor, justified the government spending £173 million on training 3,000 new cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) professionals by arguing it would pay for itself by getting many of the 1 million people claiming incapacity benefits because of mental illness in the UK off the couch and back into work.
You can criticise this shift in policy thinking from the Left or the Right. From a Leftist perspective, this is Thatcherism masquerading as therapy. The reason the government supported the Layard report’s 2005 report on depression, a Leftist sceptic could argue, is that the government hoped by spending a bit more on CBT, it could spend a lot less on incapacity benefits. You get people off the sofa, off Prozac, off the dole, and back into work. It’s Sigmund Freud meets Norman Tebbit.
This fusion of therapy with ‘on your bike’ Thatcherism reduces therapy to a mere band-aid for capitalism, argue Left-leaning therapists like Oliver James: you patch people up, give them a pep talk, and send them off into mindless low-paid jobs. It’s somewhat comparable to the First World War psychologist W.H Rivers complaining that he was treating people for shell-shock only to send them right back to the front line to die, one could argue.
Alternatively, you can criticize the new well-being state from the Right as the nanny state gone mad: it’s crazy to think the government can take the place of the family or the church, and can whisper sweet nothings into our ear until we feel happier. At best, it’s a huge waste of money. At worst, it’s Brave New World. Continue reading