Welfare, employment and mental health in the 21st century.

It cannot have been a coincidence that this year’s theme for World Mental Health Day was centred around the workplace. It certainly reflects a world in which working is seen as the epitome of recovery, rather like the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs triangle. According to this mindset, self-actualisation is achieved by having a full time job and becoming one of those infamous ‘hard working people’ that the Tories regularly talk about when trying to butter up that section of the electorate who pay their taxes to keep MPs in the manner to which they are accustomed.

I don’t know which alternate reality the UK government live in, but in this universe jobs are no guarantee of recovery, in fact they can often impede it, and exacerbate symptoms of mental health problems. Given that many people end up ill precisely because of their jobs, where they often spend most of their day, it seems bizarre that anyone would make a sweeping generalisation about work being helpful to those with emotional or psychological issues, and being a sign of complete wellness. On the other hand, if you follow the doctrine of neoliberalism it makes perfect sense, as the idea of minimalist state assistance is at its core. Things like the welfare state and the NHS are examples of socialism, are therefore evil and must be demolished.

Of course this is disguised as ‘austerity cuts’. The fact is that austerity hasn’t worked, and it is only a smokescreen for a neoliberal agenda. It has been established, even by the IMF, that neoliberalism and austerity cuts stunt growth and increase inequality. This of course is no problem for those who implement these policies as they are too rich and powerful to be adversely affected. But it affects everyone else and in many cases ruins what lives they had. An unstable job market where ‘flexibility’ is the key buzz word, zero hours contracts and the constant fear of being made unemployed and unable to put food on the table is not likely to promote good mental health. And when it comes to people with diagnosed mh problems, the idea that they can deal with their illness and all the added stressors of modern day employment is a sick joke.

We all know that thousands of people have died as a result of the Tories’ welfare cuts, through procedures like the Work Capability Assessment (unless you only read the mainstream media, in which case I can only presume you have stumbled across this page by accident and think that is ‘fake news’). People are starving to death, becoming more unwell after being denied payments for things as ridiculous as not turning up for a job centre appointment when you never received any notice of said appointment taking place, and taking their own lives as existing any longer just prolongs the living hell of being threatened by the DWP and there seems to be no end to it. If the public had had the foresight to vote in the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, it’s quite possible that many lives could have been saved, as they had pledged to end the WCA and make PIP (Personal Independence Payment) assessments fairer, although what they meant by ‘fairer’ was not made clear. Not that you would know this if you watch the MSM, as they have completely ignored the subject of welfare cuts and the Tory driven breach of human rights as stated by the UN on several occasions. Now with Brexit and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, along with the ability of the government to bypass Parliament and rubber stamp Bills without a debate or Commons vote through the Henry VIII powers, it seems that things can only get worse for all of us. In fact the Tories have already started ignoring embarrassing defeats in Westminster, as shown by last night’s Universal Credit debate which they lost unanimously. UC will be rolled out as planned even though it will leave many people without money for 6 weeks and force them to use food banks. The fact that the Tories get away with this (apart from the fact that the MSM does not report such defeats) shows that the wider public has no time for benefit claimants, and consider them a burden which is expendable; indeed, less than human.

As someone with mental health issues I am used to being treated as a subspecies and whenever I have had jobs I rarely mention any diagnoses as I know that the mentally ill are deemed even lower than the average benefit claimant. Stigma is a real problem, especially when applying for jobs. The double standards of the general public on this is astounding. On the one hand they want us to stop being lazy scroungers and get a job, as obviously all people with mh problems are not really ill, just playing the system, but on the other hand we might be dangerous, and most likely stupid/inept, as after all we are nutters, and no one wants to work alongside one of those.

I remember one job I had working in a kitchen where the people I worked with knew of my problems (I told them I had depression). One day I picked up a knife and walked across the room to use it to chop up some food. A ‘colleague’ told me that he wondered what I was going to do with it. That kind of ignorance about mh issues is pretty widespread in society. If you have a job and have mh problems the chances are that you deal with any triggers or stressors on your own, as people just don’t understand (or want to understand) mental illness. This is of course added pressure and if you live in a small town (like me) you have the extra worry that someone will know you from somewhere and identify you as a nutjob. People are never the same with you again after they find out that you are officially a headcase. They either ignore you, abuse you or are extra specially nice to you, presumably in case you produce an axe from your trouser pocket and start hacking them to death if they say anything remotely negative about you. But that of course assumes that you got the job and were honest about having a mental illness, which is unlikely, especially if you have something like schizophrenia. Yet people with such a diagnosis are told they have to look for work, when they cannot be honest about their health and expect to be ‘successful’ in being employed, and even if they were, there wouldn’t get support at their job and would be ostracised, making them more paranoid and increasing the chance of a relapse or hospital admission. Why the Tories think it is worth pursuing this vindictive welfare policy when it clearly costs more than it saves is beyond any naïve member of the public, but some of us know they are not called ‘the Nasty Party’ for nothing.

Until mh stigma is eradicated for ALL mental health diagnoses there should be an acknowledgement by the government that it is more difficult to get a job when suffering from a mental illness. It is also obvious that when in a job anyone with mh problems/who is disabled should be well supported and have access to a ‘work counsellor’ who they can offload any worries and stressors to. This doesn’t have to be exclusively available to those with diagnoses/disabilites; anyone who is stressed or unhappy in their job should be eligible for such a service. Of course this would cost money, which apparently is the main reason for welfare cuts, that and the idea that work is the best route to recovery. It is unlikely therefore that every workplace will be obliged to employ an internal counselling service/support system for people with disabilities/mh problems. But was that ever the real reason for cutting disability payments? Some of us can see a parallel in the actions of our government and that of the Nazi government of the 1930s. But contrary to their ideals, work is no guarantee of recovery, or measure of good mental health. It is nothing more than a means of surviving for most people, which is another reason why so many hate those on benefits; jealousy. For the Tories the glorification of work and shrinking of the welfare state is a good excuse to euthanise those who need state support to exist, and with a faithful MSM and a dumbed down society they can get away with anything, literally, anything.

Seroquel Susie

The Invisible Whiteness of Being, Philip Thomas

When it comes to matters of race and culture, whiteness is plainly invisible. What do I mean by that, and how can I make such an assertion? Over the years I worked as a consultant psychiatrist, in multi-cultural inner-city Manchester and Bradford, and multi-cultural rural Gwynedd in Wales (where the English were counted as an ethnic minority), I attended my fair share of cultural ‘sensitivity’ training events. At first I found such sessions useful; I’d always been fascinated by cultural difference for reasons that will become clear. But as time passed I began to feel increasingly uneasy about empirical approaches to cultural difference.

This is because we white people were never the objects of scrutiny in these events. Whiteys didn’t have culture; we were invisible. Our culture is so soft, so gentle, we don’t notice it and take it for granted. Like the anthropologists of an earlier generation we assumed we could understand the essence of other people’s cultures as though our own cultural beliefs and assumptions had no effect on how we interpreted other cultures. All we had to do was to learn the objective ‘facts’ and that qualified us to work with people who were different fromourselves. One problem with this is that it overlooks the problematic historical relationships that exist between us and non-European people, historical relationships grounded in
colonialism, slavery, oppression, and the wholesale imposition of White European cultural values and beliefs on non-Europeans. How did this insight become clear to me?

To trace the origins of my personal enlightenment, I have to say a little bit about my own family of origin, where I was born and brought up, and quite a bit about my parents. It is fortuitous that I’m writing this sitting in the departure lounge of Terminal 2 at Manchester Airport, surrounded by people from all cultures and ethnicities, as I wait for a plane to take me via Hong Kong to Melbourne for the funeral of my much-loved Uncle John, my mother’s ‘baby brother’. There’s a sense in which I’m retracing a family journey, one that my Uncle made nearly 50 years ago when he emigrated from Liverpool to Australia with his wife as part of a new wave of Anglo-Saxon colonialism that began after the Second World War and continued into the 1970s. It is of course a deeply moving moment for me, but it has positioned me in the right emotional frame of mind to write about very personal matters. So,here we go.

The first eighteen years of my life were spent in North-East Wales, literally a stone’s throw from the English border, an area that until the nineteenth century was largely rural. But as the Industrial Revolution exploded in Manchester, Lancashire and the Potteries, the coal and brick clay that lay beneath the hills and marshes that bordered the River Dee became a valuable asset. At the end of the nineteenth century John Summers moved his
steelworks from Stalybridge to reclaimed land on the Dee marshes. Consequently the population of what came to be called Deeside exploded, as the new factory drew in people from Liverpool, Lancashire, the Potteries, and of course, Ireland.

My paternal great grand-father and mother, Frederick and Annie Jowett moved from Leeds to Deeside at the end of the nineteenth century. The surname Jowett is thought to be of Norman origin, and descended from the Jouets who accompanied William the Conqueror in the Norman colonisation of 1066. Frederick and Annie were of course not Norman aristocrats, but honest working class Christian socialists, God-fearing, abstemious and hard-working.
My paternal grandfather, Bencie Thomas came with his family from Aberdare in the Welsh valleys to become a highly skilled blast-furnace man at the new steel works. He had a dangerous job, responsible for deciding the precise moment to tap the furnace and release its molten charge of white hot steel. He married Mary, Frederick and Annie’s eldest daughter, shortly after the end of the First World War, a conflict he didn’t fight in because he was in a reserved occupation. There is a family story, how true it is I cannot say, that on the night of their wedding, Mary told Bencie in no uncertain terms that he “…was never to use that heathen tongue in my house”, referring to the Welsh language. The first Welsh Nationalist M.P., the late Gwynfor Evans, described in his book Land of my Fathers (the first Welsh history of Wales) how the English had suppressed Welsh culture for centuries by stopping the
Welsh using it. Bencie was a Welsh-speaker. His Welsh Methodist hymnal in which he wrote in an immaculate copper-plate hand the first lines of his twenty or so favourite hymns (in English, for Mary) is one of my treasured possessions. Then, in 1924, their only child, Roy, my father, was born.

All this is a way of framing my first experience in practicing racism at primary school when I was nine. A new girl joined our class. She had flame red hair, freckles, piercing blue eyes and white eyelashes, a true Celt. Her family left the farm in rural Wales because her father found better paid work in the steelworks. Her appearance and the fact that she spoke Welsh faultlessly set her apart from the rest of us. Those differences singled her out for the most appalling racist abuse. It was her name more than anything that became the butt of crude jokes and derision. She was called Ebrillwen. Only much later did I discover that it meant white April, a beautiful and poetic way of marking through the Welsh language the birth of a daughter in the snows of April. It gives you a glimpse into the love of nature in Welsh culture, and how this is tied poetically to identity. Now to my mother’s side of the family.

My maternal grandfather, Walter Mercer, was a self-made businessman who moved from rural Wiltshire to Liverpool shortly after the end of the First World War. He started a successful printing business in the City, and then built it up again from scratch after it was flattened in the Blitz in the war. His business was successful, and he lived in a comfortable semi-detached house in what was then a middle-class area of Birkenhead, over the river from Liverpool. He married Minnie Love, a beautiful Irish Protestant girl from a large family in Bundoran, County Donegal. The Loves may have originated in Scotland, so-called Ulster Scots, but there is a family story that the name was an Anglicisation of the French Lamour, and that their ancestors were Huguenots who fled the Catholic persecution of Protestants in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. The edict safeguarded tolerance for Protestant worship in Catholic France and the Low Countries. If true, it would explain two important aspects of my life: my love of European and French culture, and the unseemly blend of hatred and mockery of Catholicism that I was exposed to at home from an early age.

But there’s more. Minnie Mercer died three months before I was born, leaving my mother in a profound state of grief during the last stages of her pregnancy. In the early months of my life she nursed and loved me through tears, sadness and despair because her dearly loved mother would never see her first grandchild. But my mother made up for the loss, because as long as I can remember I have felt a closeness to Ireland, its people and especially its humour. This is as important today as it was when I was a child.
It partly explains why I have always found girls of Irish descent irresistible, especially Catholic ones. After all, I married one!
We are now in a position to understand how complex whiteness is. It isn’t a two-dimensional thing, a shallow layer daubed over my personality, a thing that can be dismissed in terms of cricket, warm beer and loyalty to the flag. The more I met and became friends with people from non-European cultures, the more questions this raised for me about my culture, and especially what I suppose what some would call my cultural identity. It’s worth noting in passing that I dislike this expression because it implies that who we are is fixed and unyielding. I believe that who I am changes from moment to moment as part of a complex interaction between the social and political environments I find myself in, who I am with, and how the mood takes me.

I began to see that what it means for me to be ‘white’ is riddled with contradictions, conflict and paradoxes. Let me give some examples. When I open my mouth people assume I’m an educated English middle class male. Well, I was extremely fortunate in having had a superb education in a state school, but my accent changed dramatically in October 1967, when I encountered really privileged middle and upper class white males in my first week at medical school. I consciously lost my Deeside accent so as not to stand out from the crowd. My accent marked me out as different; in the eyes of these unthinking young men it marked me as inferior, a pleb, or so it felt.

In fact I had always been acutely aware of the class system throughout my childhood, because of the disjunction between my father’s and mother’s class origins. I’d always felt neither middle class nor working class. I was a Janus figure looking both ways, liminal and borderline. Consequently, the class system held a morbid fascination for me; this was one reason I joined the Navy as a medical officer after I qualified. I had to find out more about it.

Then there was religion. In my teens I lost all religious belief. My scientific education converted me into a secular rationalist who could not admit to the possibility of a life outside the body, the resurrection and so on. That remains my belief, but my view is more nuanced these days. Medicine places you in a uniquely privileged position with fellow human beings in the most extreme states of abjection, despair and distress. I realised that although it didn’t work for me, religious faith of whatever hue brought great comfort and meaning into people’s lives. This forced me examine the partisan nature my early religious experience, mocking Catholics and the Pope. I still feel ashamed about this, as I do about the way we racially abused Ebrillwen.

Then there was the issue of gender and sexuality, and I have to be very careful here. For obvious reasons I was much closer to my mother, and as I matured I rejected the working class notion of masculinity my father offered. What I witnessed in my family life, the patriarchal nature of white working class culture, filled me with horror and disgust. I could see how, in many different ways, this made women unhappy and deeply dissatisfied with their lives. I also rejected the dominant notions of white working class male sexuality. I have always disliked the bluster and macho nature of male company. At university I much preferred the company of women and my growing number of gay male friends, so much so that I know at one point my father was ‘worried’ I might be gay. I think that’s why he had no qualms about me marrying a beautiful Catholic girl of Irish heritage.

So where does this leave me? It made me increasingly aware of and close to other liminal beings, who like me, existed in the spaces between the conventional pillars of identity, Black, South Asian, LGBT and disabled people, people who became my friends, and who helped me to understand so much more about myself and what it means to be human. It made me realise that the mainstream view of whiteness is so riddled with contradictions, half and selective truths, that it can only be sustained by suppressing and oppressing all other forms of difference lest it be found out.

This, after all, is the great lie of colonialism, a political enterprise piloted by the English against the Welsh (never forget Owain Glyndŵr), perfected on a grand political scale against the Irish, Africans and Asian people, and the indigenous peoples of North America, Australia and New Zealand, before reaching its liberal apotheosis in slavery, the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous peoples in the interests of trade, profit and the economy.

I wince in anger, horror and despair when I hear a British (Brutish?) Foreign Secretary recite the opening lines of Tennyson’s Road to Manadalay – a paean to colonialism – in the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Yangon, Myanmar. Has he forgotten his otherness?
It also helps me to know that my family’s history is peppered with diasporas: a Yorkshire family travelling to a new life on the banks of the River Dee, a young woman from County Donegal arriving in Liverpool to make a new life for herself, a shy young Welsh man travelling across Wales leaving his roots, language and culture behind, Uncle John travelling across the globe as an economic migrant, just like the thousands who followed in the wake of the Windrush.

Then I wonder how similar their experiences were, and realise there would have been no similarity. Uncle John was a successful White business man with entrepreneurial skills that were valued in the host country. Most of the first generation African-Caribbean migrants met with outright hostility and racism. “No Blacks Here” on factory gates and boarding room doors. Then I think of my putative Huguenot ancestors, escaping religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Many settled in London’s East End. The Jamme Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane was originally built as La Neuve Eglise in 1743 for Huguenot asylum seekers. Then it became a synagogue for the Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Poland at the end of the nineteenth century. And I see the reception that Syrian and other refugees fleeing terror and destruction receive today in our media and from the politicians on the Right. Our pompous, self-aggrandising whiteness has a very selective memory, Foreign Secretary, and remembers only those stories about its origins that suit its purpose.

© Philip Thomas
October 2017