What works and what doesn’t

There’s an excellent article written recently about working, welfare, and mental health that’s really rather worth looking at. I don’t agree completely with it, but it makes some very good points about wellness and ability to work, and the results of both good and bad jobs. What interests me, however, is the very last line.

The final paragraph is a statement from the Director of Welfare Reform at WINZ. She informs us that there have been changes to the way WINZ deals with the mentally ill (but doesn’t hint at what these changes might be, beyond the obvious renaming of sick people from ‘ill’ to ‘seeking work’). She talks about individualised support, overcoming barriers, and other great buzzwords. Finally, she says

If you need help, come and talk to us.

I choked on my tea. Come and talk to us? That’s the last thing that anyone wants to do. Talk to people that are often not exactly lovely to the people they work with. Talk to people who are stuck within a shitty system of problematic policies. Talk to people who invariably have no idea how mental illness impacts a life. Talk to people who are paid to see you as a loafer who just needs to get up and get a job and get off the benefit, to stop being a drag on society.

The experience of going to WINZ is demeaning and dehumanising. Your personal circumstances, your personal banking details, everything is fair game to your case manager and they aren’t always above making you feel like a lesser human being because of it.

I’ve never personally experienced the seminars ‘offered to’ (forced on) Jobseekers. When mental health needs conflict with the ability to attend compulsory seminars, what then? Some case managers will work with you. Some will cut your benefit with nothing but an official letter. If you’re too unwell to attend your seminar, are you going to be able to come and see them?

Being classed as a Jobseeker means that people with mental illnesses have an expectation laid on them to go out and get a job. That’s fine for people that are doing pretty well, who will be helped by a good job that can help them build a sense of normality and even of pride in themselves, as happened to the young man in the article. For people on the worse side of the mental health existence, pressure to get a job when you’re flatly incapable just makes things worse. A person with badly- or un-controlled schizophrenia complete with delusions and hallucinations is not ready for employment, and they definitely aren’t in a position where coming in and seeing WINZ staff is even vaguely a good idea.

Someone with severe depression is going to struggle to go and see WINZ. Hell, they often struggle to get out of bed. And if they manage to come and see WINZ, what then? Who there has any idea about how debilitating depression can be? The awareness programmes that have run in the past ten years or more don’t show anything like how bad it can get. It’s all just glossed over, and in a way it makes it worse, because Joe Case Manager has this idea that it’s a problem, but it goes away, and it can be worked through. So Joe Case Manager has no sympathy and a list of jobs to apply for.

Mental health is not catered for in the WINZ system, no matter what they say. There’s no true understanding of what their clients are experiencing at any level – why would mental health be treated with any more understanding than the plight of a pregnant newly-single mother? Come and talk to us? Yeah, right.

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