1. IPDD: Cameron commandeers paralympics while disabled put on Workfare, Remploy shutting & hate crime on rise

    Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. You may have seen on twitter earlier that David Cameron was keen to put a positive spin on the day, tweeting:

    "An important day. Intl Day of Persons with Disabilities in the year when Paralympians changed our perception forever."

    So what have the government been doing for the perception and treatment of people with disabilities this year then? Well, there is plenty going on.

    1) As of today, with seemingly no irony, sick and disabled people will now be forced into the Workfare scheme

    I’ve argued elsewhere that Workfare is bad news for all workers, regardless of whether you are left wing or not. Essentially it means that big companies can keep wages at rock bottom, enhancing the level of job insecurity that keeps low paid workers compliant, by providing a free workforce. The scheme is systematically abused by the companies who have been involved in it, with benefits claimants released, job-free, after completing their “work experience”, only to be replaced with a new supply of free labour from the job centre. And now, in what can only be described as a brutal move from a government, people who with cancer, disabled people, and those with mental health issues will now be joining other benefits claimants in being forced to take part in Workfare, unpaid, for an ‘unspecified length of time’, with benefits withdrawn if they don’t. This is absolutely barbaric.


    2) Disabled Remploy workers face the dole (and presumably Workfare) as the move to shut it down continues

    While Remploy workers fight on for their jobs, the government are continuing with the move to shut down 36 out of 54 Remploy sites, meaning forced redundancies for 1,752 people. It seems incredibly ironic that where work which enables workers to contribute in a safe and effective way exists, it is being shut down, at the same time as the move to push disabled benefits claimants into potentially unsuitable workplaces (for free). Presumably all part of the bonfire of Equalities “Red-Tape” which continues to baffle me - the Eton Old Boys were winning by miles already, why do they have to tilt the playing field even more heavily in their favour?

    You can support the petition to save Remploy here:


    Campaign here: http://saveremployfactories.co.uk/

    3) Hate crime against the disabled rising: government continue to stigmatise, with creeping norm of sickness being seen as synonymous with scrounging

    Official figures show that hate crimes relating to disability have risen by nearly 25% in the past year. Whilst some of this has been linked to issues with increased reporting, and the EHRC have identified the problems with particular police forces in tackling the issue, there is no doubt that we are seeing an unnerving rise of cultural bile against the sick and disabled. Time and time again the disability narrative is being reinforced as one of contribution: “If people have not contributed, why should they share in success?” This government is characterised by a dangerous mix of neo-liberal individualism, where the self is all (and helping others is best seen in terms of choice and charity rather than social responsibility), and small-minded conservatism - a narrow, regressive view of equality issues, where the sick and disabled are demonised as free-loaders. It isn’t just in Westminster or in the tabloids, it is seeping out everywhere, and we should all be very afraid of what it means for us as a people, and for those amongst us who are now not only disabled by the world around them but under attack from the state.



  2. Depression - blog for depression awareness week

    It was brought to my attention yesterday that this is depression awareness week, so as it is something that has featured a lot in my life personally and professionally I thought I would write about it.

    Depression became a big part of my life in my mid teens, when my dad had a breakdown. It pretty much turned my world upside down, and while a lot of what i experienced was to do with worrying about what I could see happening to people I loved, I also had to deal with a lot of stuff relating to social attitudes. Not anything anyone said to me - I don’t think we ever received anything but kindness or support from people around us, who were mainly family members and their church friends - or implied, but my own issues in feeling uncomfortable about talking to anyone about what was going on, anger at what I imagined people thought based on how depression tends to be viewed. I don’t think I talked to any of my friends about it much if at all at the time. I felt like he was being swallowed up in his own sense of failure.

    When I met Ian, my partner, he was being treated for depression (at the age of 19), though fortunately this has not been a long lasting issue. Since then at least four of my closest friends have gone or are going through some form or other of it, along with lots of people I know less well.

    There is no one cause of depression. I think the simplest and most accurate way to explain it is as a normal human experience (rather than a psychological disturbance as such, which is how it is clinically viewed), but one which can cause a lot of suffering for those who experience it. The stats for reported depression suggests that it is one of the most common mental illnesses:

    It is estimated that 5-10% of the population at any given time is suffering from identifiable depression needing psychiatric or psychosocial intervention. The life-time risk of developing depression is 10-20% in females and slightly less in males.” (WHO, 2004)

    Clearly with any sort of neurotic mental illness (a condition where people are still aware of reality) there are problems with report rates as a definite stat, because there are two issues which impact: firstly, the social stigma surrounding mental illness, and in particular the barriers to admitting an inability to cope. This may be the reason why the figure is slightly higher in women, who tend to seek medical help quicker and have less social pressure not to crack or show emotion. Additionally, there is probably a good deal of self-treatment, including relatively healthy activities such as exercising but also forays into other things such as alcoholism (or other addictions) or eating disorders.

    Depression is in part biological, in that people who are experiencing depression have chemical differences in the brain. It relates in part to levels of serotonin (a neurochemical which has a knock on effect on lots of other things chemically) activity in the brain, so is in that sense an invisible physical difference between those who experience it and those who do not, and like many other invisible physical differences tends to be misunderstood as a matter of choice (just not choosing to snap out of it). It is likely that people are to some extent genetically predisposed towards depression - born with a genetic combination which does not determine that they will become depressed but maybe makes their vulnerability greater in the right set of circumstances.

    Environmental stressors, including both issues in the home environment, personal relationships, work life etc, but also wider factors such as poverty and discrimination, all increase vulnerability to depression. Depression levels tend to go up at times of economic austerity (and have risen under the coalition). This may be in part down to increased personal failure and hopelessness - it has long been argued that depression is in part a behavioural response to repetitive failure and lack of control (Seligman’s learned helplessness theory) - in a time of high unemployment but may also relate to cuts to support services which could manage depression at a milder level.

    Anti-psychiatrists argue that the medicalised diagnosis of depression is a form of social control: that depression is a result of a failure of our social support systems and structure to provide opportunity and care, and that by diagnosing we point the finger inside the individual in deciding the cause rather than engaging with a wider look outwards at what is going wrong in our society. They also point to the massive international capitalist interests of psychiatric drug companies which do bear some investigation, though there isn’t space to do it here.

    Treatments for depression are controversial. Generally SSRIs (a drug which impacts on serotonin activity) are used these days but there is much debate over their effectiveness: they seem to be most effective for those with moderate to extreme depression, with placebos performing at the same level for mild depression and possible increased risk of suicide in teenagers and young adults. As with any psychiatric drug, there are issues surrounding control (by giving someone a drug you are taking away their involvement in their recovery, to some extent), dependency, side-effects etc. While traditionally depression has also been supported by psychotherapy with a humanistic element (person-centred counseling for example), in recent times Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a shorter, cheaper therapy which involves a large body of work being undertaken by the client alone, is rising in popularity. Reviews of therapeutic effectiveness suggest that the most important factor in success is how skilled the therapist is rather than the therapy chosen.

    As with most mental illnesses, I think it is really important that we look at the extent to which those suffering feel obliged to take responsibility. The assumption is that mental illnesses are a matter of choice, and this causes real problems in terms of what people have to go through, It puts up barriers which prevent the same level of social support that someone with a clear physical illness can get (though even that is being eroded under the current climate of suspicion over “scrounging” being deliberately stirred by the government and media). Depression may not be visible to the naked human eye, but unless it has been experienced there is no way to really judge how much it distorts judgement and decisions or what it is like living inside it. Like many other social issues, I think one of the first things we should do is look at the extent to which our education system and society teaches children an empathic imagination: the ability to see the world from another’s point of view rather than a shallow process of uninformed judgement.

  3. Breivik, mental illness, language, and ethics

    It is becoming clear that Breivik’s lawyers are likely to make a case for insanity. This has inevitably brought about a re-discussion and construction of the mad/bad debate - the ethical debate of whether or not someone with the mindset capable of putting together bombs and opening fire on teenagers can ever be understood as mentally “healthy”, or alternatively, whether the label of mental illness is deliberately manipulated to excuse crimes which have nothing in common with the difficult life experiences of the vast majority of individuals who would also be grouped under this label. I think the two most important elements to consider when trying to negotiate this difficult topic are this:

    • Firstly, that mental illness is a slippery “best-fit” term which is used culturally to group together a huge variety of experiences for the purpose of socio-cognitive order: majority-understood mental classification of society and its variations and nuances.
    • Secondly, that the language of mental illness is used to support the liberal soft-determinist argument that psychological dysfunction and the analysis of biological and cultural origins for brutal violence is more useful both in terms of gaining understanding and attempting what limited prevention is possible that resorting to more simplistic concepts of good and evil.  

    Looking first at mental illness in itself as a concept and classification system, there are big issues, but no clear alternative linguistic tools. Mental illness is a “catch all” term for many many different and distinct variations in perception of reality.

    There are traditionally two broad sub-divisions in the way mental illness is classified. Firstly, psychotic illnesses, in which perceptions of reality are severely impaired, and which includes conditions such as paranoid Schizophrenia, where individuals generally experience auditory hallucinations and delusions - hearing voices and developing bizarre beliefs which commonly include the belief that suicide is a necessary step in achieving some long term goal such as rising up as a king of hell. In general these types of condition don’t tend to attract much debate legally when looking at responsibility as they have strong marker signs, and can be physically detected and tracked so the suspicion of “faking it” is not really raised. There are genetic links to many of these conditions, although generally not a determinist gene, which means that some people are born more vulnerable to them but they are still culturally activated, and also means poverty, poor housing, stress and ethnicity are all risk factors in Schizophrenia. There is of course a necessity to look at who does the diagnosis and how they are primed to interpret the beliefs and behaviours of those they diagnose before considering a diagnosis to be an objective and scientific process rather than a form of labeling, but this does not mean biology should be discounted. It is also very important to note that whilst paranoid schizophrenics are assigned the role culturally of monsters by the right wing press, they are far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, and it could probably also be argued have received a bigger helping of institutionalised abuse in the form of harmful treatments and representations over the years than the sum of any violent outbreaks on the part of the schizophrenics themselves. Of course, this type of condition has got nothing to do with Breivik’s acts, but it will probably be a dominant form of (mis)understanding when the general public think of the insanity plea.

    Also falling under the umbrella term of mental illness we have neurotic conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression. These types of disorder are characterised by a more subtle nuanced difference in the perception of reality. In simple terms, neurotic conditions involve an experience of reality which differs in terms of how new information is interpreted (e.g. someone with depression will generally focus on negative aspects of new information, whilst someone with an anxiety disorder will have a very physical stress response to various situations which then impacts on thought) without direct disturbances in how the world is experienced such as hallucinations. There is a lot of variation and many mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder cross both categories in terms of symptoms. It doesn’t help matters that these types of disorder have historically been the battle ground for a power struggle in terms of classification and language - because depression falls on one end of a spectrum of “normal” mindsets and interpretations there have years worth of ignorant allegation which have led to a muddy common cultural interpretation that depression is a result of “not pulling yourself together” which has in turn led to a strong assertion for a biological interpretation of the condition. Certainly depression has genetic links and is linked in particular to problems in the uptake of the neurochemical serotonin, but I think it is most useful to think of is as a symptom which is classified as a disorder for the purpose of treatment - it is a “normal” strand on the spectrum of human experience which in some cases is activated more easily in one individual than another depending on triggers being in place (genetic to some degree then) and in some cases is a response to the individual experiencing life events way above the “mean” threshold.

    As previously discussed, it would be reductionist to discount the role of biological factors in mental illness, but to see mental illness as a “thing” existing in a vacuum of cultural interpretation is also limited. Mental illness reflects the stratification of class, gender and ethnicity in society, which is probably partly down to labeling but also empowerment and the effects this has on resilience factors such as self esteem (e.g. you could argue that some mental illnesses are a normal human reaction that any human could experience if placed in a particularly impoverished or oppressed section of society). Types of disorder also reflect the “niche” of experience and strategy available to the individual - e.g. eating disorders most common in young women where social pressures surrounding appearance are highest, and addiction highest in working class men where there is a lack of available social space and learned strategies to discuss emotional problems.

    Moving on from looking at the slippery nature of “mental illness” as a classification system, the main problem is that whilst the grouping together of all dysfunctional psychological processing is useful in trying to move beyond an account which simply addresses criminal behaviour in terms of good and evil, by doing this we inadvertently link criminal deviance with the vast majority of those individuals who fall under the umbrella term without any other link or commonality. This is dangerous in that it has real consequences in terms of how people with mental illnesses are perceived and treated in their day-to-day lives. Terms like “lunatic fringe” (which I used myself in the last post) can usefully guide a reader to the idea that my perspective of “inhumanity” comes from the viewpoint of psychology and culture, but it also serves to reinforce the dominant discourse linking mental illness and danger. There are no real solutions for this. There is a strong argument to be made that we need to develop new linguistic systems to represent criminality in terms of biological and social origins rather than evil without linking to any other psychological disorder, but the practicalities of feeding this into public language are huge, in that there is already the resistant “political correctness” classification system which picks up and neutralises this kind of strategy. On top of this, attempts to examine the biological and cultural roots to criminal behaviour are commonly dismissed as appeasement, disrespectful, and that term I’m starting to get used to, “Marxist filth”. I don’t deny free will in that I experience a conscious choice process and can assume that (most) also do but I don’t believe in evil or monstrosity, which is beyond controversial in terms of how my ideas would be interpreted in any mainstream arena. There is also the possibility that unless the new linguistic system was very robust it would not be meaningful at the level of general public understanding, in that it would be too complex. For the moment, all I can do is look carefully at the terminology I use to try to explain behaviour and try to work on moving this forward.

    So, it is possible that you have come this far and not really come to a conclusion as to whether I believe Breivik was mentally ill. I think my thinking here can be summarised as follows.

    1) He was not driven by the type of mental illness which definitely divorces the individual from reality such as paranoid Schizophrenia (as discussed earlier).

    2) His beliefs seem to reflect a worrying normalisation of (previously) extremist right wing thinking, and from this perspective the “illness” to focus on is much a social disease as a particular problem with the individual.

    3) The examination of biological, developmental, social and cultural factors traditionally undertaken by those trained in studying mental illness and social psychology is more meaningful than a simple description of an evil monster. This does not mean that I don’t believe he should be imprisoned for life, but my perspective is that this is necessary for the protection of society rather than the punishment of evil fulfilling any useful social purpose - beyond perhaps deterrence, which is a whole other debate in itself.