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Laurie Penny: A sad truth about “happy pills”

Governments have long been reluctant to draw attention to the links between mental health and socio-economic factors.

The government insists that meaningful and empowering jobs are there for the taking in the way that a toddler might insist he didn't eat that lipstick. Meanwhile, 7 per cent of British workers are now reliant on antidepressants. The 43 per cent rise in the number of antidepressant prescriptions in the UK since 2006 has been attributed "to the recession", as if the mass self-tranquilisation of despairing workers were an inevitable response to the economic downturn.

But the surge in prescriptions indicates not so much an increase in "sadness" but a rise in the number of people taking these drugs on a long-term basis, often to combat stress or anxiety. Calling these drugs "happy pills" is misleading: antidepressants can be highly addictive and have a range of debilitating side effects, not least the numbing of emotional response. They can provide a vital crutch for people in recovery from serious mental illness but Prozac, Seroxat and Citalopram were never intended as solutions to fiscal instability.

Governments have long been reluctant to draw attention to the links between mental health and socio-economic factors - links that challenge the orthodoxy that those who are too unwell to work are merely "scroungers". Depression and anxiety are blamed almost wholly on individuals. If we are not strong enough to cope with the rat race, we must be personally deficient and undeserving of support.

We are told that no matter how low the pay or long the hours, drudgery will deliver happiness. The dogma driving the current wave of welfare reforms is that out-of-work benefits must be withdrawn on a grand scale, even in a time of mass unemployment - not to cut costs but because work makes people so very happy.

Unemployment can damage well-being but poor mental health has been shown to be just as likely a consequence of what a recent study called "jobs with poor psychosocial attributes". This is academic code for insecure work in awful conditions: corporate serfdom in offices, call centres and canteens.

Broken heart

Earlier this year, I spoke to William, a 22-year-old benefits adviser, who was on strike because working conditions in his office had become intolerable. Half the staff, he told me, were on antidepressants just to cope with the strain. "People come to work in tears," he said, "but they're terrified of saying they can't cope because they know just what happens if they have to go on the sick."

What happens, in an age when the mentally ill are the whipping-children of enforced austerity, is that one must battle a spiteful welfare system for the pittance to which one is entitled and face the possibility of being out of work for a very long time.

Nobody is forced to take antidepressants but with talking therapies woefully underfunded and sickness benefits under attack, many GPs feel obliged to recommend them as the only option.

If you have a broken leg, there is no shame in requiring a crutch - but crutches do not cure. Antidepressants may help British workers keep calm and carry on but change is needed to heal the broken heart of British society.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.