So today I’m hearing via twitter that the Tories, and the Lib Dems, both have ideas about forcing people on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and other out-of-work benefits to submit to mental health treatment. The Tories are blatant about it: they would sanction (i.e. cut off the benefits payments) if a person refused the mandatory treatment. The Lib Dem proposal doesn’t seem to state this openly, but as the linked piece by Latentexistence outlines, nothing done in a Jobcentre context is free of that threat any more.
I am a current JSA claimant and am technically long-term unemployed. I had 3 weeks of work over Christmas and a long gap before that. I am also a long-term sufferer of depression, which has at times been severe, and potentially life-threatening.
The potent threat that if you agree to any programme and then withdraw, then your finances could be affected, has made me more and more reluctant to say “yes” to any scheme proposed to me by the Jobcentre unless I am absolutely enthused by the proposed outcome and at least a little bit more impressed that it might be something a bit different from the half-dozen other “get you back to work” lectures they’ve foisted on me over the past few years. I find excuses why it’s not for me, and not appropriate. As latentexistence says:
…there can be no meaningful consent to treatment in the context of the Job Centre. Where once the Job Centre was there to help people to find a job, these days it is more known for ruthless sanctions and cutting off benefits for whatever trivial excuse they can come up with. If Job Centre staff tell someone that they need mental health treatment it will be backed up with words such as “your benefits may be affected if you do not attend” which is a barely-veiled threat that they apply to most “voluntary” tasks that they inflict on people.
I have often felt that if Jobcentre staff were given a much better grounding in counselling techniques – not up to therapist levels, obviously, but maybe the Level 2 course I took (that doesn’t qualify me to be a counsellor, and was called “Helping Skills” to make that distinction) then the experience of signing on and reporting yet again that I have failed in the job of getting a job might be a bit more pleasant: if I could focus on successes, and they could show an interest in my general wellbeing and progress as a person.
I actually want genuinely optional and available mental health talk therapy available through the benefits system. Depression is a horrendous thief of time, energy and capacity and it genuinely does hold me back from finding work at times, but with waiting lists on the NHS at over a year long now, finding the help I desire is impossible. (I need to write another post on the value of work to me.) Properly guided (that is, structured by the client with the advice of the professional) treatment and a compassionate structure would make a huge difference to me.
But that is not what’s proposed, and it’s not what we have. The Jobcentre is not a compassionate place, and it hasn’t been for as long as I’ve been seeking work (which, on and off, stretches back over a decade). Again, Latentexistence:
The regime of sanctions and workfare means that the Job Centre is a direct cause of much mental illness among people on benefits. I cannot see anyone wanting to reveal this to any therapist in the Job Centre even if absolute confidentiallity is promised. There is too much danger of it leaking to vindictive staff who are eager to hit their targets for sanctions.
My least productive job search time has always been the 24 hours following a Jobcentre visit, because that was when I felt most demoralised and demotivated. A decade ago, I used to say things like this to the staff and would be told, “Well, surely that’s just more motivation for you to find a job.” Compassion was never available. The best staff would show a little, but always they were the face of the bureaucratic, uncaring, implacable system. One way or another, it would always end up as, “More than my job’s worth.”
With the notion of Jobcentre-based, computer-based CBT, however, I know that I would not engage with it. I would undergo the tasks because I had to be there, and with no mental or emotional engagement with it. My defensive walls and barriers would be up. I would allow my mind to wander, as I so often do when pushed to sit in front of Jobcentre computer, to more entertaining and relaxing things such as my novel, favourite music, what I might find in the charity shops today, what I’ll have for lunch or dinner… anything but the computer and the Jobcentre.
I know the sorts of things to say to Jobcentre staff to show that I am engaging, even while I am really not, and even while I am actually trying to avoid things (and also when I do want to engage with things). Being long-term unemployed teaches you nothing if not how to game a system designed to crush you and catch you out. If I could report my Jobcentre-surviving skills as transferable skills to the workplace, I suspect I would be much better placed to get a job! So the upshot is that I would appear to be engaging, I would report slow, steady progress in the desired direction, and yet there would be no on-the-ground advantage. It’s a classic case of how setting targets actually reduces effectiveness.
Jobcentre staff are set targets for how many people they sanction in a week. I had this from the horse’s mouth a few years ago when someone who left the Jobcentre to join one of the external training providers, told me so; it was also reported in the Guardian a year or two back. How am I to believe that a new scheme is not just there to give them one more method for meeting that target?
Anything mandatory, anything prescribed without a proper examination of the needs of the client, is only going to do more harm.