by Cathy Campbell, Ellen Duff and Sally Zlotowitz
“The pandemic is a portal. We can walk through it with our dead ideas. Or we can walk lightly, ready to imagine another world.”
Psychologists for Social Change aim to develop new ways of being, seeing and doing in the field of ‘mental health’* and well-being. This includes moving beyond models that focus solely on the individual. We are committed to promoting understandings of psychological health and care for others in distress as a political act - one which involves not only psychological therapies, but also efforts to promote social conditions that enable and support the possibility of well-being for all through tackling the social inequalities that drive ill-health in many local, national and global contexts.
PSC have described the mechanisms through which social and economic policy can damage the population’s psychological health, notably the impact of austerity. We also describe how it is possible to do the opposite by generating more trust, connection, security, meaning and participation through social and economy policies. It is in this spirit of hope and solidarity that PSC added our name to the campaign calling for us to #BuildBackBetter from COVID-19. The five principles in the letter map out social conditions which would significantly increase opportunities for psychological health, not only in relation to COVID, but also in relation to future health threats, including those created by climate change - particularly amongst the socially disadvantaged who tend to suffer the poorest health and the least protection from adversity.
1. Put people’s health first, no exceptions.
There is much debate between those prioritising ‘the preservation of every life at all costs’ and those who suggest that the long-term damage the COVID-19 response (such as the lockdown that is keeping people away from work) is doing to the economy may be a worse consequence than the loss of life. It is our view that every single life matters. We find the notion of a trade-off between life and money abhorrent.
We are devastated by the deaths of health professionals, social care workers, bus drivers, supermarket employees and other key workers that are supporting the sick and enabling the survival of the rest of us. This has disproportionately affected BAME groups and women as they are over-represented in lower paid and caring roles. We regard the government’s failure to provide adequate protective equipment and testing to support this group in their vital work as a particular outrage.
2. Provide economic relief directly to the people.
Politicians are faced with choices about how to distribute financial relief - to industries, such as aviation, or to people, be that particular groups of people or to everybody. They have taken a reactive stance to protecting the income of particular sections of society - firstly contracted employees, then the self-employed, meanwhile failing to address existing issues of casualised labour in which people have no recourse to sick pay, and increased pressure on the already not-fit-for-purpose Universal Credit system. This stance reinforces the divisive austerity-era narratives of the striving workers vs the skiving workless. To date the government has rolled out £200bn of quantitative easing, which typically disproportionately benefits the richest in society. An alternative approach would have been to distribute this directly to people through, for example, a period of Universal Basic Income (UBI) - we have written about the potential psychological impact of UBI here. Within our current political and economic system, a large part of that money would still ‘trickle up’ through people’s rent, utilities and shopping into the pockets of the richest, but will have also directly benefited people and their communities in the process. An assessment of the impact of UBI would be important after this initial period to ensure it is working fairly for all citizens. For example, it's vital that the provision of UBI is not linked to a loss of income for people who claim benefits which are assessed on need, such as disability benefits.
3. Help workers and communities, not corporate executives.
COVID assistance directed at specific industries must be channelled to communities and workers, not shareholders or corporate executives, and never to corporations that don’t commit to tackling the climate crisis. Indeed, it is time to take seriously the government’s own position of advocating for localism. The importance of transferring power and resources directly to communities at this time cannot be overstated, especially, as the group #charitiessowhite has emphasised, to marginalised groups such as BAME communities, without whom we cannot truly collectively create a new future for the UK.
We know the positive impact of participation and active citizenship on people’s health and wellbeing but this can only be enabled through adequate resourcing. Austerity policies decimated these resources, as the government chose to bail out the banks and then slash funding of public services and the community and voluntary sector, contributing to thousands of preventable deaths and suicides in contexts of ever increasing psychological distress and health inequalities.
4. Create resilience for future crises.
There is an urgent need for our economic systems to address inequality and the climate crisis, to work towards the zero-carbon future we need, such as outlined in the Green New Deal. This unique moment in history gives us the opportunity to ‘build back better’. Community-led businesses and employee owned, democratically run cooperatives, social enterprises and businesses could form part of a more fair, resilient and sustainable future. Possibilities could equally lie beyond the labour market, in a system where access to the basics of living does not rely directly on labour. How might the current crisis look different if we all received universal basic income or universal basic services, for example?
5. Build solidarity and community across borders – don’t empower authoritarians.
The current global crisis opens opportunities for social change: towards increased division and inequality, national isolationism and xenophobia; or to turn the tide on neo-liberal individualism, to recognise the power of cooperation and increase our agency as communities. There are already numerous examples of the former approach, but have also likely seen many cases of increased cooperation in our communities in the form of mutual aid groups, for example. We want to see this amplified to an international scale, in which money and technology are shared with lower-income countries and communities to allow us to share solutions across borders. We commit to fighting any use of this crisis as an excuse to trample on human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.
The UK has a long history of health and mental health inequalities, with socially advantaged people living much healthier and longer lives than any other group. These health inequalities mirror the unequal distribution of economic wealth, political power, oppression and social status. COVID is drawing new attention to the social fault-lines that sustain these social injustices – potentially opening up new opportunities for the fight for more societies characterised by greater solidarity and equality. The pandemic throws a new spotlight on the long-standing failure of neo-liberalism to create social systems and conditions that protect the health and well-being of citizens. It has revealed the weakness of the social and political status quo that many took for granted until only weeks ago. It has undermined the worrying escalation of anti-science and anti-expertise narratives. It has forced governments to acknowledge that they need active citizens whose actions go beyond self-interest and the profit motive and can be mobilised to participate in collective efforts to promote social well-being. Horizontal networks have sprung up all over the country in the form of mutual aid groups, volunteers to support the NHS and people who are increasing their caring responsibilities. All these activities are reviving the hope that the world could be a better place: A psychologically healthier society in which participation, community, trust and connection might be valued over status, individualism, and competition.
We are supporting the call to #BuildBackBetter after Covid-19 and we are working out PSC’s place and role in this ambition. We would welcome your people’s ideas and comments. Please email us: email@example.com or tweet at us @PsychSocChange
*We use the term ‘mental health’ cautiously as it may prompt people to think of the biomedical framework and diagnostic terms such as ‘depression’. At PSC, we are explicitly advocating for a social and contextual model of people’s psychological experiences which moves us away from biomedical understandings and terminology.
Photo by Aniket Bhattacharya on Unsplash