Show Hide image

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 The dogma driving the current wave of welfare reforms is that out-of-work benefits must be withdrawn on a grand scale, even in a time of mass unemployment - not to cut costs but because work makes people so very happy.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

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.