Imagine if we took mental health as seriously as the struggle against Covid

Happy World Mental Health Day! It’s a good day to remind ourselves of the need to take care of our own and each other’s mental health.

That’s much harder in a society in which economic and social systems are built on greed, personal accumulation and working for the sake of working. So it’s also a good day to campaign for better mental health services and, longer term, for an end to capitalism.

The Covid pandemic shows how much society can be changed, and how quickly, both by a major health problem and by the attempts to prevent, contain or treat it.

It is quite right that we make a major priority of addressing Covid 19. But I think it’s also important that we take other health problems very seriously too. Don’t get me wrong: I am not for a moment suggesting that Covid should be taken less seriously. I am suggesting that we should apply the same concern and commitment to addressing health problems more broadly.

Mental health services in the UK, perhaps particularly in England, are often under-funded, badly run, badly publicised and insufficiently connected with wider health and wellbeing services. This is not to criticise the many brilliant people working within them. But no amount of hard work by dedicated staff can make up for a lack of funding and political support in an overwhelmed public service.

This is all the more so because the very structures of British capitalist society add to mental health problems, with the constant pressure to conform, to consume, to be economically productive (often for the sake of someone else’s profits) at the same time as being a perfect partner, parent, relative or friend. The pandemic has fuelled certain types of mental health problems and the poverty resulting from the recession will fuel more.

When the lockdown was announced in March, mental health services should have received extra funding and support as part of the response to Covid. Instead, they became less of a priority and some who run them started to misuse the horror of the Covid pandemic as an excuse for lack of support from mental health services.

The Covid pandemic is pretty certainly bringing a mental health pandemic in its wake. The seeds of a mental health pandemic have been sown over years.

I don’t have easy answers for addressing this problem. I really do think that the prevalence of mental health problems cannot be seriously addressed within the current socio-economic system.

But on World Mental Health Day, let’s just imagine for a moment. Let’s just imagine that we viewed mental health as just as important as the vital struggle to tackle Covid 19.

Imagine if the government and media stressed the importance of taking time off work if you had poor mental health symptoms (without needing to “self-isolate”).

Imagine if bosses were criticised for not allowing workers with mental health problems to take time off work.

Imagine if workplaces were legally obliged to implement mental health and safety arrangements.

Imagine if shops, pubs, schools and universities were only allowed to open if they implemented measures to protect and promote the mental health of their customers and staff. Imagine if they faced being closed if they didn’t.

Imagine if the state paid the wages of people who couldn’t work because of mental ill-health, rather than trying to snatch away meagre benefits.

Imagine if people developing symptoms of mental health problems were more often met with support and offers of help rather than ignorance or contempt.

Imagine if the government published a daily or weekly count of the suicide rate, and of numbers of people diagnosed with mental health problems, because tackling these problems were regarded across society as a national priority.

Imagine if billions of pounds could be devoted overnight to mental health support, because it is such an urgent need.

Imagine if society encouraged mutual aid so that people could rely on each other when struggling with mental health problems.

Imagine if the headlines were full of debates about the best way to fund mental health services and improve mental health across society.

Imagine if workplaces, universities, faith groups and the arts all adapted quickly to include people who might otherwise be excluded for mental health reasons, with the speed with which home-working and Zoom meetings developed in the spring.

Imagine if we decided that mental health matters as much as physical health (which would still matter just as much). Imagine if we tackled the mental health crisis while also tackling the Covid crisis.

Imagine if we realised that we can’t meaningfully tackle either of them without restructuring society.

More famous parables reconsidered

Upside-Down BibleLast week saw the publication of my new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence.

My publisher – Darton, Longman and Todd – have been publishing a series of blog posts I have written about Jesus’ parables, based around some of the parables explored in the book.

The fourth post, Sex workers and the Kingdom of God, was published today. It explores Jesus’ comments on sex workers and the “parable of the two sons” in Matthew 21.

The previous blog posts are

The labourers in the vineyard and their zero-hour contracts

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published next week. To give you a taste of it, I’ve written some short blog posts that my publisher, DLT, will be running over the next few days. I’m cross-posting them on here. Here’s the first.

 
Upside-Down BibleJesus spent a lot of time talking about money. It was a central theme in many of his parables.

When I showed these parables to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them, they responded by talking about money. This is less obvious than it sounds. Christians rarely mention money when discussing these stories. We are used to being told that they are making symbolic points about salvation.

First-time readers are unlikely to do this. Like Jesus’ first listeners, they hear stories about their everyday concerns. I have found that they make varied, interesting and insightful observations – all of which Christians risk overlooking in our rush towards doctrinal conclusions.

This experience has convinced me that Christians have a lot to learn from non-Christians – about the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable often referred to as “the workers in the vineyard”. You can find it at Matthew 20, 1-15. The story concerns a landowner who hires casual labourers for different lengths of time but pays them all the same wage.

For many readers, the issues feel close to home. In various parts of the world, farm labourers and construction workers still gather in the morning to see if anyone will hire them. In the UK, zero-hour contracts are now very common. People await a text at six in the morning to tell them if they will have work. They are the equivalent of day labourers gathering in the market place.

One recent academic commentary on Matthew’s Gospel lists eight possible interpretations of this parable, none of which have anything to do with money and work. It is true that Jesus appears to have been drawing on a Jewish tradition of ‘parables of recompense’, in which unusual payments were used to illustrate wider points. Jesus’ story, however, goes into far more detail than most of these. Furthermore, Jesus’ listeners heard a story about their own worries: work, money, power, having enough to eat. Christian interpretation, however, has been influenced over centuries by church leaders and scholars who have rarely had to worry about finding enough work, money or food.

So how does the story sound to people who have experienced poverty and unemployment in today’s world?

‘I would have to identify with the late arrivals,’ said Samantha. ‘As a person with a disability, I have often had to claim benefits because of being unable to keep up with normal “hardworking” people.’

She added, ‘I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others’.

Although Samantha is approaching the story from a left-wing perspective, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who shares her politics will read it in the same way. Carl, another first-time reader, believes that the employer behaved unfairly.

‘This story illustrates the exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The parallels to today are many; the inequalities of pay are vast: between genders, between different countries of the world or even areas of the same country, between workers within the same company.’

He concludes, ‘Surely Jesus was saying this isn’t good and that we should not behave in this way’.

Whether we agree with Samantha, with Carl or with neither, their perspectives are a reminder of something that Christians all too easily overlook: Jesus’ teachings concern our everyday lives and how our world functions, not merely a distant future or an abstract doctrine.

 

The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 26th November in paperback and e-book, priced £9.99.

Grassroots activism and the Leaders’ Debate

Leaders’ Debates are always going to be unbearable on some level. The petty attacks, the narrowness of the discussions, the very limited time span, the tendency of some people to think that shouting loudly constitutes debate (meaning Nigel Farage in this case).

Nonetheless, it could have been a lot worse. Compared to the equivalent debates in the 2010 election, this one included reference to some relatively progressive ideas. There was talk of scrapping zero-hour contracts, cracking down on dodgy landlords, building more houses, ending NHS privatisation and challenging energy companies. While Farage blamed everything on immigration, the panel did not generally dance to his tune and for once his nasty xenophobic agenda failed to dominate the discussion.

I’m not being naïve. Discussion of progressive policies does not necessarily mean that they will be introduced, even if those who promoted them come to power. Also, things could have been considerably more radical. It’s a shame that in the education discussion, no-one challenged the power of fee-paying schools. Capitalism was not attacked explicitly. Only one leader (Nicola Sturgeon) repeatedly mentioned nuclear weapons.

This won’t stop me being glad that progressive ideas came up more than might have been expected. They may even have shifted the election debate slightly to the left (though this partly depends on which bits the media choose to focus on, and I’m not holding my breath).

So why did these progressive ideas come up in the Leaders’ Debate?

Partly, of course, it was due to the presence of three leaders to the left of Labour (Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon). Wood did a good job of challenging xenophobia, telling Farage to be “ashamed of yourself”. One of the best quotes of the evening surely has to be Wood’s comment, “It was not Polish care workers and Estonian bar workers who caused the economic crisis. It was bankers.” All three of them rejected the notion of austerity, with Sturgeon saying we can’t “afford any more austerity” and Wood saying Miliband offered only “austerity light”.

While none of these three went as far as I would have liked, I think we have a lot to thank them for.

Yet some of the progressive ideas were emphasised by Ed Miliband: ending zero-hour contracts, cracking down on corporate tax avoidance, raising the minimum wage, tackling private sector rent levels. I don’t believe that these things came up simply because Ed Miliband feels strongly about them. Indeed, when he became leader four and a half years ago, he had barely mentioned most of them.

These issues became noticed because of the work of people at the grassroots, in their communities, high streets and workplaces, speaking up and taking action. Corporate tax-dodging was noticed by the media and mainstream politicians only after UK Uncut took nonviolent direct action in tax-dodging shops in 2010-11. Zero-hour contracts and fuel poverty have been the focus of campaigns backed by trades unions, faith groups and others around Britain. The state of private sector renting has been a disgrace for decades, but the efforts of campaigning groups have combined with criticisms of rising house-prices to make people like Ed Miliband realise that challenging it can be a vote-winner.

Whether Labour – or for that matter, the SNP or others – will stick to these policies after the election is another matter. That’s why we will need to keep up the pressure after 7th May. But the fact that they are even talking about them demonstrates the effect that grassroots activism can have.

Elections are only one small part of politics, only one event in democracy. Real democracy means using our power whether or not an election is on. That’s why we need to keep campaigning after the election – through pressuring politicians, through direct action, through protests, boycotts and strikes, through living out our values where we find ourselves.  When we vote we hand over only some of our power, temporarily, to the people we elect.

Death, mental health and Andreas Lubitz

My first reaction to the news of last week’s aeroplane crash was, of course, horror. Millions of people reacted in a similar way. For the friends and relatives of those killed, the reaction was naturally more intense. It is hard to imagine what they are going through, as for all those bereaved suddenly and without explanation.

The news that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane added a further level of stunned horror. In such a situation, some will naturally seek to understand, others to blame, others to prevent such incidents occurring in future.

Some airlines have said that they will change procedures so that no pilot can lock themselves in and operate the plane alone. While I can’t claim to know much about airline procedures, that seems to be a sensible decision.

In all this discussion, we seem to have forgotten just how rare such incidents are. I mean no disrespect to the dead and bereaved when I say that we should accord just as much respect to the hundreds of people killed every year in British road accidents and of course to the millions around the world who die of hunger and preventable diseases.

We have a hierarchy of death. When someone dies in an unusual way, we ask how to prevent it in future. When death occurs in a way we find routine, we simply allow the routine to continue. Questions of road safety, let alone global hunger, are rarely addressed as urgent questions.

Much of the media reaction to the tragedy in the Alps has been very sensational. But it is far worse than this. In seeking to understand, to blame or to sell newspapers, they have talked of the co-pilot’s mental health in a way that demonises everybody with mental health problems.

It is years since British newspapers produced such prejudiced front page headlines about mental health as we have seen over the last few days.

It has been suggested that Andreas Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly because he was depressed. Let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of people with depression and other mental health problems will never kill anyone. They are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others. The vast majority of people who kill themselves do not kill others with them. Behaviour such as Lubitz’s is very, very rare.

There are some who want to prevent people with mental health problems from holding responsible jobs, or jobs at all. Of course some people with mental ill-health are not able to work. They are as entitled to society’s support and respect as anyone else. Many other people with mental health problems (myself included) have jobs. There are so many of us that much of society would collapse if we were all prevented from working.

Certain newspaper editors and columnists seem to think that people with mental health problems should not be allowed to work, but those same editors and columnists would be the first to complain if such people received benefits as a result of giving up their work.

People with mental health problems are not some distant and scary group. They are people we meet at work, pass in the street, chat to after church. They are people who serve us in cafes and shops, drive our buses, teach our children, treat us when we are sick, preach to us on Sundays and yes, work as aeroplane pilots.

World War One: The overlooked opposition

Last year saw a flood of new books on World War One. When I saw a new one in a bookshop or library, I would pick it up and look up how much space it gave to the issue of opposition to the war. This was particularly so if it was presented as a general history of the war, or of Britian’s part in it.

The new  books are still coming, but I have largely given up on this practice. I became rather demoralised with books that failed to mention the anti-war movement, or confined themselves to a single paragraph on conscientious objectors or – worse still – claimed that almost everyone in Britain supported the war.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about the peace activists of World War One. Everywhere, I am met with surprise about the level of opposition. Here are some much-overlooked facts.

  1. There were peace demonstrations throughout the war. Around 15-20,000 people demonstrated against the war in Trafalgar Square on 2 August 1914. About 5,000 protested in Glasgow at the same time, with thousands of others around the UK. The Women’s Peace Crusade organised protests around Britain from 1916-18.
  2. The Tribunal, newsletter of the leading anti-war group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), had 100,000 readers in 1916, despite being a semi-underground publication.
  3. On 9th July 1915, a Captain Townroe wrote from the West Lancashire Territorial Force to Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He reported that: “Over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”.
  4. Women from around Europe and North America gathered in the Hague in April 1915 for an international peace congress. The UK government prevented most British delegates from sailing, but three of them managed to make it.
  5. In early 1917, around 200,000 people in the UK signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace (Germany had offered peace talks and the UK government had declined).
  6. In January 1917, a pacifist called Albert Taylor won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Rossendale by-election, standing on an anti-war ticket.
  7. At least 16,100 people (the lowest estimate) refused to join the British army and became conscientious objectors (the highest estimate is around 23,000).
  8. Over 6,000 British conscientious objectors were sent to prison after refusing exemption or rejecting the conditions for partial exemption.
  9. 35 British conscientious objectors were sentenced to death in 1916, although the sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment following political campaigning on the issue. Over 80 conscientious objectors died in prison, military detention or work camps, mostly due to ill treatment and poor conditions.
  10. Dozens of peace activists, both women and men, spent time in prison under the Defence of the Realm Act for offences such as handing out anti-war leaflets, producing illegal publications and encouraging people not to join the army.
  11. There was industrial unrest throughout the war, particularly in 1918. The summer of 1918 saw strikes in arms factories and on the railways, including a strike by female cleaners on the railways calling for equal pay with men. On 30 August 1918, the majority of the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
  12. There were a string of mutinies among British soldiers between November 1918 and February 1919, as the government failed to demobilise them despite the end of the war. Some of the mutineers elected Soldiers’ Councils and set up soldiers’ trades unions.

We need to cut ‘defence’ spending, not increase it

The Daily Telegraph’s campaign for high military spending has gathered momentum. Tory backbenchers, retired generals and even some Labour MPs have backed calls to keep “defence spending” at 2% of GDP. Last week, in a Commons debate attended by very few MPs, the majority of those who bothered to turn up voted in favour of the proposal.

There are several facts that rarely get mentioned.

Firstly, when they speak about “defence spending”, they mean the budget of the Ministry of Defence. A great deal of military and war-related spending is from other budgets. This includes funding for research and much of the cost of fighting actual wars. When this is added in, the figure is far above 2% of GDP.

Secondly, the UK’s military (or “defence”) expenditure is not low by international standards. It is very high. According to academic research in Sweden in 2013, the UK has the sixth highest military budget in the world. Even if it has fallen slightly since then, Britain is still spending far more on war than most of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. The Daily Telegraph itself published a chart illustrating that the UK is spending a higher percentage of GDP on “defence” than almost every other member of NATO and the  European Union.

Thirdly, “defence” is clearly a euphemism for spending on warfare and preparations for warfare. Despite the choice of wording, much of this expenditure has little or nothing to do with defending the British people. Supporters of “defence” spending talk about “national security” as if only weapons and soldiers can make anyone secure. In reality, the use of British troops as a support act in US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan has increased terrorist threats to Britain, making us less secure. All sorts of things help to make people secure – including a warm home, enough to eat and healthy relationships. These are being denied to increasing numbers of people in Britain by vicious cuts to public services, the welfare state and local authority budgets – cuts that are much larger than cuts to “defence” spending. The British people are threatened more by their own government than by any foreign power.

The militarists are increasingly vocal and well-organised in lobbying for high military spending in the UK. As the pressure grows, those who believe in real security need to speak up and expose the reality.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.