Dawn Foster Guardian/UK 19 August 2015
For Stephen Weatherhead, a 37-year-old clinical psychologist working in Lancaster, and for a lot of other psychologists, this week is going to involve walking 100 miles from Leicester to London, sleeping rough, and meeting dozens of people along the way.Walk the Talk, an awareness-raising trek from the British Psychological Society (BPS) offices in Leicester to its headquarters in the capital, will take in visits to food banks, supported housing, homelessness services and mental health centres, recording testimonies from people whose psychological wellbeing has been jeopardised by the benefits system and Work Programme. The participants will meet people at points on the route, so other psychologists, social workers, and anyone who agrees with their concerns, can join the march.
Weatherhead and his colleagues see the effect that the benefits system has on extremely vulnerable people every day, but the day-to-day impact on people’s lives remains hidden from the public, especially in terms of mental health, due to the ongoing stigma attached to psychological illness. “I work in brain injury and it’s been stressful to see the effect the benefits system has, with patients being pushed through traumatic assessments or being pressured into work when they’re not ready,” he says. “I came up with the idea of Walk the Talk, to see if we could draw attention to the impact social policy is having on people’s mental health every day.”
For people working in mental health, any progress is tempered by the external problems created by the rise in sanctions and the cuts to employment support allowance and the independent living fund. “People’s psychological experience is exacerbated by their social situation. Some people are really struggling to feed their families, or worrying about whether they can pay their heating bills over the winter. Their debts are mounting up and they’re not able to find a way out,” Weatherhead says.
“It feels a bit crass trying to work with someone on their depression or anxiety, when that depression or anxiety is well-founded because they’re at risk of losing their home, or not being able to feed their kids.” Stress, depression and anxiety can be completely debilitating, he says, and when this stress is caused by hardship, trying to combat it through talking therapies feels like ignoring the reality of the situation.
What has worsened over the past five years in terms of what psychologists are seeing on wards? “Debt, poverty and homelessness – I see an increasing number of clients who have lost their home or are struggling to retain their home, as well as people not able to access services as well as they could if they had stable accommodation,” Weatherhead says.
Clinicians who are joining the walk say that they’ve seen an increase both in appointments being missed because patients daren’t miss compulsory jobcentre appointments for fear of being sanctioned, and also in parents declining psychological therapy for their children, because they simply cannot afford the weekly transport costs.
Weatherhead has also witnessed patients who fear that any small step to recovery will see their benefits stopped before they are healthy, or that even going outside means they’ll be reported to the Department for Work and Pensions. “I have clients who are going through recovery, who are being pushed into work when they’re not ready. I was trying to get one client to walk around her local park as part of her recovery,” he says. “But she’s afraid to in case she’s then told she’s fit for work, when she’s clearly not able to work, and loses her benefits. It’s really traumatic: it’s probably the biggest problem facing mental health in this country.”
The group sets out its concerns online: “Emotional wellbeing does not exist or develop in a bubble; it is affected by our social contexts. Some of these, such as ethnicity, gender, ability or socio-economic status, bring with them institutional marginalisation or discrimination, which increase experiences of inequality. Figures demonstrate that individuals in more unequal societies have poorer overall mental health and emotional wellbeing.”
The BPS states that as a profession, psychologists aim to “reduce psychological distress and enhance and promote psychological wellbeing”. The walk participants and supporters point out that this is not possible while social inequalities, cause, ingrain and perpetuate psychological distress. The BPS president, professor Jamie Hacker-Hughes, is leading the walk with Weatherhead.