Tony Devaney -Mental Health and Neoliberal Policy. Critical responses to government reforms

On 11th March 2015, The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas presented a private members’ bill to reverse key elements of the government’s health reforms. The bill called for the purchaser-provider split within the NHS to be abolished and the role of private companies restricted. Caroline Lucas said: “Our NHS is being dismantled piece by piece. A fragmented, market-based structure isn’t the ‘national’ service that so many people fought for so courageously. It mustn’t be reduced to a set of transactions, contracts and bidding wars that hollow it into little more than a logo – and waste resources that could be spent on front-line patient care.” 1

In a Queens Speech debate on 3rd June 2015, Baroness Hollins (Crossbencher) observed that “In Her Majesty’s Speech, we heard that her Government intends to, “secure the future of the National Health Service.” She went on to say that Government has recognised the need to “to improve access to mental healthcare” and that this is a very welcome promise, because during the last Parliament, funding for mental health was cut in real terms by 8.25%—almost £600 million.” 2  She also observed, “a staggering 7 million people experience mental illness at any one time, touching an estimated one-third of all households” and “a further 2 million British people are expected to experience mental illness by 2030.”  She made the point that “we need public mental health prevention strategies, not just better access to treatment.”

An earlier news article, ‘Austerity and a malign benefits regime are profoundly damaging mental health’ (Guardian – Mental health, April 2015), contained a letter signed by 442 psychotherapists, counsellors and academics. Referring to the disturbing psychological and quality-of-life implications of government’s cuts and policies it condemned government plans to provide online cognitive behavioural therapy to 40,000 employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme and to put IAPT therapists in more than 350 jobcentres.

Viewed as being ‘most important and distressing of all’ was the issue of benefits claimants, including disabled and ill people, being subjected to a ‘quite new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime.’ The letter said that where this includes the linkage of social security benefits to the receipt of ‘state therapy’, this is unacceptable, as ‘Get to work therapy is manifestly not therapy at all.’

It went on to say that, ‘the wider reality of a society thrown completely off balance by the emotional toxicity of neoliberal thinking is affecting Britain in profound ways, the distressing effects of which are often most visible in the therapist’s consulting room.’ It suggested that the letter sounds the starting-bell for a broadly based campaign of organisations and professionals against the damage that neoliberalism is doing to the nation’s mental health. 3

The government is placing increasing pressure on our NHS, with constant reorganisations and an administrative stranglehold. While publicly promising to support it they are underhandedly causing it to fail, to justify bringing it under corporate control for private profit, copying the American model. 4 This is all part of a Neoliberal class warfare being waged worldwide.           It ensures that most members of society are kept needy and greedy, hooked on technological trivia, gambling and consumer credit. The growing emphasis on promotion of profitable technological innovation at the expense of real human empathy and connection is serving to divorce us from our roots as citizens and turning us into self-interested consumers. 5

We are conditioned on a daily basis by a corporate controlled media designed to distract us with scare stories and the use of news as ‘infotainment’, from real underlying issues about how we live. We are manipulated through a subtle engineering of consent and creation of voter apathy, to accept policies that are against our own real common good as a society. All too often we blindly accept neoliberal economic policy and control of public opinion by our government leaders, in the name of so called Democracy, because ‘it is good for us.’ 6

In a Telegraph newspaper article, Jeremy Hunt said: “Britain is failing to meet its obligation to the elderly because some people lead such “busy, atomised lives” that they don’t even know whether their relatives are dying.” 7 This is clearly more ‘people bashing’ and denial of real responsibility by the government. We need to ask now, what are the government and big business strategies that create and maintain the ‘atomisation’ of society, turning so many people into passive, isolated and indebted consumers, rather than active engaged citizens? What impact do these strategies have on public mental health and family/social cohesion? These questions are comprehensively and clearly addressed in, Robert McChesney’s Introduction to ‘Profit over People – neoliberalism and global order,’ by Noam Chomsky. 8

My own poetry, written some years ago, remains relevant in relation to current economic policy, increasing poverty and mental illness and need for on-going social action. The first poem was circulated around the world, via the 2002, Johannesburg Earth Summit.9

Capture

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The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that nearly five million British children will be living in absolute poverty after housing costs by 2020-21, under current government policies. (June 2015)              The impact of economic reforms elsewhere in Europe is far worse. A group of UK left-leading MPs, union chiefs and charity leaders have recently signed a letter calling for a debt relief conference for Greece, and an end to austerity.

The recent UK Government spending review with its reversal of immediate cuts to tax credits does not signal any change in policy. The same people are going to be hit in the same way – just a little later on, with the introduction of Universal credit.

This brief review of some recent news articles and political debate relating to mental health and current government reforms is written as a ‘creative reflection’ to stimulate further debate on the issues raised. Combined with my own comments and poetry it is intended to highlight the on-going destructive nature of Neoliberalism and its impacts on mental health in the UK and around the world.

Tony Devaney.  (Revised November 2015)

Service User Consultant

Fellow of The Institute of Mental Health

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References

(1)  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-31768259

(2)  Most hospitals are in debt, beds are cut to 2.95 per 1,000 people (compared with Germany’s 8.2). Meanwhile, 4,000 community mental health nurses are gone, plus 1,500 mental health beds.           The tyranny of A&E targets results in operations cancelled to save bed space. Half our hospitals have 10% of beds blocked by social care cases, and that dovetails with 26% cuts in community care.      (www.theguardian.com/ 2015/feb/17/jeremy-hunt-nhs-bully-in-chief-health-secretary-staff)

(3) http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/17/austerity-and-a-malign-benefits-regime-are-profoundly-damaging-mental-health

(4) The Dalton review, a government-commissioned report which last year concluded that private companies could oversee management of NHS hospitals, was advised by a panel of experts that included Jim Easton, the managing director of private health firm Care UK. The report claimed panel members were advising “in a personal capacity, rather than as representatives of their organisations”. But documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal Easton was in fact representing the NHS Partners Network, the UK’s primary lobbying group for the private healthcare sector. (www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/05/private-health-lobbyist-nhs-privatisation-dalton-review)

(5)  http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/apr/12/matthew-crawford-distraction-is-a-kind-of-obesity-of-the-mind-the-world-beyond-your-head

(6)  “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. The intelligent minorities must make use of propaganda continuously and systematically…because they alone understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses and can pull the wires which control the public mind. This process of ‘engineering consent’ is the very essence of the democratic process.”  (Edward Bernays).                    

(See ‘Profit over People – neoliberalism and global order’ (p.53), Noam Chomsky)

(7) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/elder/11709356/Thousands-are-dying-alone-and-unloved-Jeremy-Hunt-warns.html

(8) Profit over People – neoliberalism and global order, Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories Press, 1999) With Introduction, (copyright 1998) by Robert W Chesney.

(9) Reflections on Health and Care in a Consumer Society, Tony Devaney, (2010) http://www.hacw.nhs.uk/our-services/big-recovery/creative-reflections/poetry/

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