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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 The dogma driving the current wave of welfare reforms is that out-of-work benefits must be withdrawn on a grand scale, even in a time of mass unemployment - not to cut costs but because work makes people so very happy.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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.