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It just works against hope and recovery at so many levels

Thanks to Al, for  the MHFE news posting today of the link to the 'DWP News' story in the Guardian last week (17th Feb).

Obviously it's been one of the key national topics for discussion this week and it is managing to cause a strong backlash all the way around.There are some powerful related news items in the sidebars to the story that are also worth reading, in particular the very revealing Guardian blog following the news story, which you can read at:


As well as the issue of expecting people to work unpaid for an unspecified period of time (which of course some will do because of the fear of sanctions)  there also seems in the DWP presentation to be a complete lack of understanding of the necessary conditions to support people's mental health and wellbeing and recovery from mental illness and that instead of 'compliance' some people will instead stop claiming benefit and drop off the radar to live as  'ghosts' outside of the system and society.

At a push, I could just  get to a point where I could see that a short mandated placement might help a small group of people  to be able to gain confidence in themselves and equally importantly in  an employer. Perhaps if they have been out of the workplace for a long time and  feel too powerless to be able to make any positive choices for themselves, but in that case I'd need to know they had all the support in place tht they might need and that is was clearly part of a whole and personalised plan. But there is sa real risk presented here that it will be none of these things. In one fell swoop so much more than the chance for people to find something positive in an 'unpaid work experience' risks being lost. 

Some MHFE members and colleagues of members are welfare reform policy makers  or work in employment services and  other partner agencies. We know and respect their work to try to deliver the reforms in a sensitive and  empowering way, so that  it creates opportunities.  The chance of anyone achieving that  though fades as more stories come out, comments emerge and big employers (quite rightly) pull out  of unpaid work experience (although perhaps not always for the right reasons).  It is just so damaging of people's trust in the state and the welfare reform programme (which is often fragile because of people's past  personal experiences). 

I know from the experience of representing someone last week around a mandated decision (made entirely via telephone) that there are unfortunately staff who don't have the knowledge or skills to respond  in a way that is either appropriate to  the complexity of people's needs or circumstances when they have mental health problems - or even just to their humanity.  I did eventually manage to get a supervisor to re-look at the sanction decision but the individual I was representing had given up hours before and accepted loss of benefit (DLA) becuase they could not cope with the feelings provoked by the intensely pressurised way they were being dealt with on the phone.  

The naivety shown in the DWP presentation is firstly that it does make unpaid work experience 'feel' like a sanction and how things make you 'feel' is often absolutely key to how people with mental health problems in particular. respond. Secondly, it is in thinking that employment staff will be able to recognise and respond to complexity and fluctuations in a person's condition, which is not fair to vulnerable claimants or to those staff  implementing the policy.

As I experienced last week, the danger is that when staff understand  the 'outcome' they are required to achieve in a transaction but lack the knowledge and skills to engage with the complexity of the human being  who is actually involved they will learn to protect themselves from the difficult feelings and to preserve own wellbeing by, for example, (mis)using the power of  sanctions and the anonymity of the phone and the broken record technique as their own emotional survival strategy. It just works against  'hope'  and recovery at so many levels doesn't it.

Recently  I looked at the Take Ten People Ups and Downs Board Game and wondered whether it was time to archive it. After all, lots of the 'opportunities'  (welfare to work initiatives) cited in the game no longer exist. I asked some people with experience of using mental health services if I should archive it or try to update it? 'Neither' they said. 'you need to keep them in'. One person added: 'I reckon I've been through nearly  every one of them schemes. Every time, I was told it was the answer. It would get me into a job.'   

Helpfully, they reminded me, that  although I should keep in the experiences I do need to turn most of what had been ladders of opportunity into snakes that 'just keep taking you right back to the beginning'...

It just seems too thoughtless and really rather out of date in terms of our understandings of wellbeing and recovery. Where is the positive benefit of people being able to make choices recognised? Where is the opportunity for someone to feel they are taking control over their life? Flippant and/or bullish responses as we have seen when spookespeople are pushed on questions about time limits are arrogant. They set people's alarm bells ringing -particularly when, despite the state of the economy,  so much of the public rhetoric  about current welfare reforms is about sanctions.  Why not  give a time limit ? Why on earth not try to create an opportunity in which disabled people claiming ESA and employers could get to see several important things that would give both sides better understanding and a sense of hope? Things like:

  • Exactly what an individual might want to do
  • Exactly what skills someone has and might need support to develop for the workplace
  • Exactly what support they might need initially in work (and learning) and how this changes once some of the practical barriers are removed and support is put into place
  • How Access to Work actually works and can be used in practice. Using discretionary funds is not the same thing from anyone's perspective. Until people understand Access to Work  and experience it then it'll remain a best kept secret, particualrly from people with mental health problems (for whom there remains relatively limited examples and low awareness of how Access to Work can be used). 

I thought MHFE members might be especially interested to read the joint response last November that was made by several national mental health charities,  the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which points out that more than 40% of 'WRAG' have mental health problems. (I case the link above doesn't work copy and paste the following into your browser:

 http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/2011-11-03%20Work%20Experience%20for%20ESA%20Claimants.pdf )


An aside about 'WRAG'

Is it me?  Or is WRAG the acronym for the Employment Support Allowance (ESA)  'Work Related Activity Group'  something of a faux pas too. 

I've added it to the MHFE glossary but why is it there is always a new acronym that is never going to 'sound' positive and which makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise because of how its sound associations, which depersonalise people who are vulnerable and/or affected by  less than well-thought out policy implementation approaches. I thought the days when the Department of Work and Pensions and some employment services described groups of people who were out of work and claiming benefits as new and old 'stock' - but then why doesn't WRAG feel like it?  Nothing to do with worn out or discarded cloths then and no judgements intended...




Could not agree more Catina with your notes on the DWP presentation. Our organisation is a provider for the Work Programme and our experience is that those who are still being worked with and supported by our Advisers after 2 years on this programme have complex lives and mental wellbeing issues that prevent them from taking up and sustaining offers of employment or training.  They feel pressed into taking opportnities that are beyond their coping mechanisms and experience repeated failure which does little to build their resilience and confidence.