Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

proper Blond

The current government has made the welfare system increasingly conditional on the grounds that “permissive” welfare policies have led to welfare “dependency.” Strict behavioural requirements and punishments in the form of sanctions are an integral part of the Conservative ideological pseudo-moralisation of welfare, and their  “reforms” aimed at making claiming benefits much less attractive than taking a low paid, insecure, exploitative job.

Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems caused by the government’s decisions, rather than as the casualities.

And actually, that a recognisable bullying tactic known as projection, (the vehicle for projection is blame, criticism and allegation), as is scapegoating.

The 2015 budget included plans to provide online Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to 40,000 claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme, as well as putting therapists in more than 350 job centres.

I wrote an article in March about the government plans to make the receipt of social security benefits conditional on undergoing “state therapy.” I raised concern about ethical issues – such as consent, the inappropriateness of using behaviour modification as a form of “therapy,” and I criticised the proposed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) programme on methodological and theoretical grounds, as well as considering wider implications.

I’ve written at length about the coercive and punitive nature of the conservative psychopolicy interventions, underpinning the welfare “reforms,” and giving rise to increased welfare “conditionality” and negative sanctions.

In particular, I’ve focussed on the influence of the Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Team or “nudge unit” and “the application of behavioural science and psychology to public policy. (See: The nudge that knocked down democracy, The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting, and Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England? )

I was pleased to see that the BBC reported a summary of the research findings of Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn, which was supported by the Wellcome Trust. The report – Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes reflects many of the concerns raised by other professionals. I strongly recommend you read it. (See: Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies.)

The BBC summarised from the report that benefit claimants are being forced to take part in “positive thinking” courses in an effort to “change their personalities.” Those people claiming benefits that do not exhibit a “positive” outlook must undergo “reprogramming” or face having their benefits cut. This is humiliating for job seekers and does not help them find suitable work.

New benefit claimants are interviewed to find out whether they have a “psychological resistance” to work, with those deemed “less mentally fit” given more “intensive coaching.”

And unpaid work placements are increasingly judged on psychological results, such as improved motivation and confidence, rather than whether they have led to a job.

The co-author of the report, Lynne Friedli, describes such programmes, very aptly, as “Orwellian.” She says:

“Claimants’ ‘attitude to work’ is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security – it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel.

“This makes the government’s proposal to locate psychologists in job centres particularly worrying.

“By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.”

Friedli also criticised the way psychologists were being co-opted as “government enforcers” and called on professional bodies to denounce the practice.

Quite rightly so. It’s our socio-economic system, and the ideologues who shape it that present the problems, not the groups of people forced to live in it as its casualities – the “collateral damage” of neoliberalism and social conservatism.

“I don’t think anything can justify forced psychological coercion. If people want to go on training courses that should be entirely voluntary,” Lynne told BBC News.

She also questioned the aim of the motivational courses and welfare-to-work placements, which felt like “evangelical” self-help seminars.

“Do we really want a world where the only kind of person considered employable is a ‘happy clappy’, hyper-confident person with high self-esteem?

“That is a very a narrow set of characteristics. There is also a role in the workplace for the ‘eeyore’ type.”

Absolutely. Frankly, I would rather have health and safety programmes that are designed by a pessimist, capable of thinking of the worst case scenario, for example, than by a jolly, positively biased, state-coerced optimist.

I would also prefer pessimistic appraisal of social policies. That way, we may actually have impact assessments carried out regarding the consequences of Conservative policies, instead of glib, increasingly Orwellian political assurances that are on the other, more scenic, illusory side across the chasm from social realities.

Although pessimism and depression are considered to be affective disorders, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of the brain, depressed patients were shown to be more accurate in their causal attributions of positive and negative social events, and in self assessments, and assessment of their own performance of tasks, than non-depressed participants, who demonstrated a positive bias.

As a former community-based psychosocial practitioner who saw the merits and value of a liberationist model, the question that needs to be asked is: for whose benefit is CBT being used, and for what purpose? Seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of punitive government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations.

The socially dispossessed are being coerced by the state, part of that process is the internalisation of the negative images of themselves created and propagated by their oppressors.

CBT is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such a narrow, politically defined and specific outcome.

The problem that we need to confront is politically designed and perpertuated social injustice, rather than the responses and behaviour of excluded, stigmatised individuals in politically oppressed, marginalised social groups.

CBT is founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, in this case it is assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than socio-political, and that assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty.”

However, democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly about telling us how to be.

As I have said elsewhere, as well as aiming at shaping behaviour, the psycho-political messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for neoliberal welfare “reform”, austerity policies, the small State (minarchism) and also legitimises them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.) The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational.

Conservative narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatising the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

Many of the current ideas behind “reforming” welfare come from the Behavioural Insights  Team – the Nudge Unit at the heart of the Cabinet. Nudge theory has made Tory ideology, with its totalitarian tendencies, seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using discredited pseudoscience. Those policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date.

Nudge-based policy is hardly in our “best interests,” then.

Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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66 thoughts on “Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

  1. increasingly the conservatives are behaving just like their private schools behaved (or the staff and boys who were in the higher hierarchy ) towards the younger lot.(including them) Tom Browns Schooldays, great expectations? any of the classics involving boarding schools give you the idea that punishments were very similar except they cant cane people these they have to think of other ways to inflict punishment on them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s spot on, there’s an ethos of “get on with it” and a deep scorn for people struggling or that appear weaker which reflects the bullying culture of British public schools. But since when did we elect a government to behave as such bullies? And true to form, bullies co-opt passive bystanders (the public) to perpetuate their aims – to isolate, disempower and discredit their victims. And if left to it, they will also destroy their victims.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And now we have “Flashman” Bullingdons running the country.

        Perhaps this emphasis on coercive mood / affect being implemented (cack-handed) ahead of the “hub” at Streatham explains the dramatic rise in ESA sanctions. Not that there need to be any other explanation than just sheer bullying but if there is the usual internal DWP pressure for sanctions targets. It really is frightening to think of people I know who have deep psychologoical trauma and PTSD anxiety, or even my own situation of chronic pain, being told it’s all a matter of personal responsibility, stick a rictus smile on & you’re ready for work. This is going to have massive ramifications of the NHS, when those damaged by this quackery start to fall apart.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Well the election manifesto does say they have a plan for every stage of your life…
    Welcome to Alpha Complex citizen!

    Mind you, feeling positive does seem to make interviews easier to perform in… but CBT?
    That’s definitely not the way, depression of all kinds is surely a reaction to stimuli, some brains being more “sensitive/perceptive” than others.
    Thank you, OP.


    1. Feeling positive is one thing, but being coerced to feel positive is quite another. I’ve said elsewhere that in emphasising thought processes to the exclusion of complex and legitimate emotions, therapists may contribute to the harmful repression and denial of feelings.

      CBT encourages an unhealthy avoidance of psychological discomfort by diverting thoughts from the source of discomfort. CBT may rouse immature, neurotic and pathological defence mechanisms. It devalues resilience based on mature coping strategies such as openness, courage, mindfulness, acceptance and emotional self-sufficiency.

      Not only is that psychologically unhealthy for a person, it’s bad for society as it desensitises and de-empathises people, stultifies learning from experience, by disconnecting people’s thoughts from their circumstances and from others. It discourages personal development.

      Perhaps the most damning criticism of CBT is that it encourages self-deception and self-blame within clients and patients, because it maintains the status quo. The basic premise of cognitive therapy is: except for how the patient thinks, everything is okay. You can see why this would appeal to the conservatives.

      It’s necessary to face unpleasant situations – and emotions – in order to develop and mature as human being and move on from distressing or traumatic events. Denial prevents us from coping, learning and developing. Negative thoughts are healthy in negative circumstances.


  3. Really glad to have read this – great post – thanks. I particularly welcomed the points about the need for pessimism, seeing the potential for things going wrong etc. And thanks for citing our report. I’ll look forward to your future posts.


  4. Reblogged this on amnesiaclinic and commented:
    ‘But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems caused by the government’s decisions. And actually, that a recognisable bullying tactic known as projection, (the vehicle for projection is blame, criticism and allegation), as is scapegoating’.
    Spot on!
    A very good article. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. By the same, addled “logic” that blames the victims for the recession. one might as well blame Liverpool fans for the Hillsborough disaster – as Boris Johnson did until quite recently – or even blame German Jews for the Holocaust.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, that is precisely the perverse logic of this: it’s ultimately a victim-blame narrative, which props up and attempts to justify neoliberalism and social conservatism.


  5. Great Post Kitty. Really pleased to see it mentioned on the BBC, Does anyone have any idea what the Psychotherapeutic community is doing about this? I know they wrote an open letter to one of the papers not so long ago with around 200 signatures attached and seemed to suggest this was only the beginning but I really dont see how psychologists can get away with being the DWPs henchmen in whats about to unfold. I breaks their own code of conduct surely.

    What worries me is that it I have heard that the DWP have plans to privatise much of the Jobcentre plus work. My fear is that we shall end up with yet again, large corporations running our public services, and because they are in effect private companies, our right to say FOI’s will be lost, along with any transparency. Once profit comes into it then this will become out of control.

    We need all the psychological and Psychotherapeutic communities and boards to stand up together and start to make a huge noise about this. The mental health of our nation is suffering already with their Disturbing policies, We only need them to privatise the Prisons and the NHS, and then sure unemployment may boom, because all the jobs will be created working for the state via the big corporations. It could end up, workfare and brainwashing or become part of the system that brainwashes.

    Is this what they mean by upping the budget for Mental Health Services, by making it a separate entity run by the DWP

    Sorry if this is not so lucid, but Im struggling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a JSA claimant who’s been informally offered the opportunity of working in the Job Centre for work experience purposes.

      My advisor is one of the few good ones left, so I could be honest with him about the illogic of working for an organisation targeting the unemployed with benefit sanctions, while myself still being a potential target for benefit sanctions just by being on JSA. Basically, why would I want to join the enemy who wants to kill me and have me in turn indirectly killing others like me?

      I was able to say no as it was strictly off the record and not a ‘Job Seeker’s Direction’ and the advisor who suggested it still seems to hold to the old principles of helping people into work, not the grave.

      For how long though, before the Fascist regime turns me into a brown/black shirt against my will…?

      Liked by 3 people

  6. “Is this what they mean by upping the budget for Mental Health Services, by making it a separate entity run by the DWP”
    No, of course it isn’t, as that would mean state control of Mental Health Services.
    The Tories would much prefer to privatise Mental Health Services, so their chums in Unum-Provident may profit from the misfortune and suffering of others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a way, though, privatisation extends a state agenda and inflicts it on the population – it’s all about the paramountcy of market and profit incentives, and nothing to do with meeting human needs. The current govt are happy to see every dimension of human endeavour reduced to a paltry market exchange.

      I don’t believe humanity’s greatest achievements can be reduced to self-interested profit-making motives, but our worst sins probably can be.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When will the Armed Forces be privatised?

    It surely cannot be right for the State to operate a monopoly, when a privatised Army, Navy or Air Force could perform the same roles and possibly at less cost to the hard working taxpayers of the United Kingdom.

    Come to that, the monarchy itself should be privatised, as the Disney Corporation or Madame Tussauds’ could probably do a better job at reduced cost.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Quite a lot of the support for the armed services has been contracted out but they haven’t quite got to employing mercernaries on the front line yet. Neo-liberals like to have control of the police and armed forces for obvious reasons

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Sounds like a con trick. Realistically you cannot put people into jobs that are not there or put people into jobs that no one would employ because they don’t meet the superman fitness standards required these days. Having run out of objective reasons for getting people off unemployment/sickness benefit they shift the criteria to an arbitrary subjective model. If the clerk at the DWP FEELS you don’t have the right attitude to work, off the benefits roll you go. It’s a nasty, evil, vicious con.

    Liked by 2 people

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