Here are my slides from last week’s Urban Studies’ Monday Workshop (1st June 2020). I presented work in progress on a journal article, drawing on data from the Welfare Conditionality project to explore how punitive welfare conditionality is caustic to mental wellbeing.
This workshop brings together the experiences of 144 people with mental health problems from the Welfare Conditionality project and the literature on punitive welfare, social suffering, and critical theories of mental health. Successive waves of welfare reform in the UK have increased the behavioural requirements claimants are expected to meet under the threat of sanctions. Participants reported profoundly negative experiences and impacts arising from this punitive turn. Common reports from participants included there being a generalised anxiety that permeated the system, a feeling of unbearable and unrelenting pressure to meet all job search expectations without fail, and a sense they were hemmed in and trapped without means of escape. As a result many reported welfare conditionality had worsened their mental health or undone progress they had made towards recovery. Classic social theories pose a problem though in either taking an overtly negative position towards the epistemological and moral basis of speaking about ‘mental health’ or lack an understanding of mental health in conceptualising social suffering. Furthermore, there are risks of either ‘explaining away’ mental health as a product of immediate social context or positing mental health as discrete and separate from the social. Following Sedgwick (2015) and Sik (2018) an alternative path is forged that conceptualises punitive welfare as a system of social suffering which is caustic to mental wellbeing.