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 The dogma driving the current wave of welfare reforms is that out-of-work benefits must be withdrawn on a grand scale, even in a time of mass unemployment - not to cut costs but because work makes people so very happy.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

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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