Psychologists face ethical dilemmas in conflicts between their loyalty to their clients versus to those who employ the psychologists to provide therapy under conditions in which clients perceive or actually face coercion to participate in therapy as a condition for receiving benefits.
- Are professional organizations entering into troubled waters when they collaborate with institutions intent on restricting social benefits to the unemployed and disabled?
- The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) believes that UK clinical psychologists are insensitive to these ethical conflicts.
- An exchange on these issues between the MHF and a group representing clinical psychologists in the UK that notably included the British Psychological Society ended unsatisfactorily.
The Mental Health Foundation charged:
We believe your collusion with the government is now threatening to undermine the ethical integrity of the “psy” professions among service user/survivors and professionals.
It is not possible to consider this issue without considering the context of sanctions, cuts and persecution which is endemic in the current system. You fail to acknowledge that attending this proposed therapy may not be explicitly linked to conditions/sanctions but will feel so for many of its prospective clients who are on benefits. There is a structural power imbalance between job centre employees and those on benefits. With their income under threat, those on benefits will be especially susceptible to cues, suggestibility and positive reinforcement when attending job centres. Many on benefits have experienced oppressive power relations for much of their lives. Saying no in relation to an apparent free choice in this context is hugely difficult, especially when saying no has uncertain consequences.
We are concerned that under-qualified and inexperienced staff, such as job centre coaches, will be in a position to make referrals to Health and Work programs. This is exacerbated by the fact that referrals are likely to be to IAPT workers, many of whom themselves lack in-depth training and experience of severe mental health issues. Inappropriate referrals are increasingly likely in a target-driven culture.
IAPT Refers to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Program. My recent Mind the Brain blog post – A skeptical look at The Lancet behavioural activation versus CBT for depression (COBRA) study criticized an article by 14 mental health investigators which claimed that less trained clinicians could provide a simplified behaviour activation therapy with no loss in effectiveness over trained clinical psychologists providing cognitive behaviour therapy for depression. I argued that the clinical trial reported in the article was rigged to demonstrate that less trained clinicians were more cost-effective than fully trained clinical psychologists.
The MWF acknowledged that professional organizations have gone on record as opposing coercion to participate in psychotherapy. However, MWF accused the professional organizations of ignoring the genuine threat to clients.
What is the Mental Wealth Foundation?
Mental Wealth Foundation is a broad, inclusive coalition of professional, grassroots, academic and survivor campaigns and movements. We bear collective witness and support collective action in response to the destructive impact of the new paradigm in health, social care, welfare and employment. We oppose the individualisation and medicalisation of the social, political and material causes of hardship and distress, which are increasing as a result of austerity cuts to services and welfare and the unjust shift of responsibility onto people on low incomes and welfare benefits. Our recent conference focused on Welfare Reforms and Mental Health, Resisting the Impact of Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion.
The MWF lists its member organizations as
- Mental Health Resistance Network
- Disabled People Against Cuts
- Recovery in the Bin
- Boycott Workfare
- The Survivors Trust
- Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- College of Psychoanalysts
- Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility
- Psychologists Against Austerity
- Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network
- Free Psychotherapy Network
- Psychotherapists and Counsellors Union
- Social Work Action Network (Mental Health Charter)
- National Unemployed Workers Combine
- Merseyside County Association of Trades Union Councils
- Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network
The three-part exchange is reproduced below. It starts with a letter of concern from the MWF coalition. A response follows from a group of psychological organizations including the BPS. The third part of the exchange is an expression of dissatisfaction from the MWF of the insensitivity in the response from the psychological organizations and their failure to set up a meeting.
Open letter to therapy’s professional bodies on the psychocompulsion of welfare claimants – from the Mental Wealth Foundation
21st March 2016
British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
British Psychoanalytic Council
British Psychological Society
United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy
Professional bodies scrutinise Government ‘therapists in job centres’ plans
We write in response to your joint public statement of 7 March 2016 outlining the outcome of your meetings with the Government’s new Joint Health and Work Unit and your scrutiny of the Government’s plans to place therapists in job centres .
There is no indication that any consultation has taken place with members of your organisations with knowledge of these matters nor with service users, clients and their representative organisations. This lack of consultation and opportunity for wider reflection has contributed to your organisations departing from your own ethical structures and frameworks, and being seen as agents of harmful government policy . It is by now generally accepted that the consequences of the DWP and government policy in this area are far reaching for physically and mentally disabled people on social security benefits. Inexplicably your organisations’ scrutiny of government plans has failed to recognise this.
The joining of Government Health and Work Departments is not helpful, and current DWP policy intended to reduce the socio-economic causes of mental illness to the one simple fact of unemployment is clinically and intellectually ridiculous. The resulting policy promoting work as cure, which your organisations are now supporting, is offensive and dangerous. It is wrong for therapy organisations to buy into the unthinking praise for ‘work’ that often forms part of the rhetoric of governments.
While for some clients improving employment prospects may be an objective, for many others this is not the case and may be profoundly damaging. Indeed, for some people, their mental health problems may have begun because of work e.g. through experiences of bullying in the workplace. This one size fits all approach is simplistic. Premature return to work can result in loss of confidence and relapses affecting future ability to get back to work. This can also lead to prolonged periods without benefits and no income .
You state that plans must be aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing rather than as a means of getting people back to work. These are not the aims and objectives being expressed by the people who are implementing the programme right now, involving targeting ‘hard to help’ clients who are likely to be people with enduring physical or mental health difficulties. For example in the Islington pilot project Councillor Richard Watts has stated, “We think there is much more that health services can do to promote the idea of employment for people with health conditions.” In the Islington CCG Commissioners’ report in November calling for employment services in GP surgeries to reach ‘hard to help’ claimants, they state that, “to improve the system we need to…maximise the contribution of all local services to boost employment, making it a priority for health, housing, social care and training. We need to open up how we talk to people about employment, including asking healthcare professionals to have conversations about work with patients, as part of their recovery. We need to give professionals the information and tools to help them to do this.” . For all clients, establishing a trusting relationship is the first priority, involving respecting their current needs, perspectives and autonomy.
Jobs advertised on the BACP website in November 2015 have the explicit aim of getting clients back to work and engaging with employment services e.g. “your role will include: producing tailored health action plans for each client, focusing on improving their health and moving them closer to work…generate health and wellbeing referrals to ensure continued engagement with employment advisers” . Similarly G4S advertise jobs for BABCP accredited CBT practitioners with job roles including: “Targeted on the level, number and effectiveness of interventions in re-engaging Customers and Customer progression into work” .
We respectfully submit that information about these jobs was known to all of your organisations when you issued your joint statement. This inconsistency is seriously misleading.
We are glad that you oppose conditionality, coercion and sanctions. Clearly such punitive measures have no place in the therapeutic relationship. We fail to share your reassurance from the government that these measures will not be pursued against clients. DWP have repeatedly claimed that sanctions are a last resort and only happen in a tiny minority of cases. The reality is that millions of people have been sanctioned. In the twelve months to September 2015 alone, over 350,000 ESA and JSA claimants were sanctioned . In the Employment Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group the majority of sanctions were of people who have been placed in the group specifically because they are experiencing mental health issues and research shows that benefit sanctions on people with mental health problems has increased by 600% .
It is not possible to consider this issue without considering the context of sanctions, cuts and persecution which is endemic in the current system. You fail to acknowledge that attending this proposed therapy may not be explicitly linked to conditions/sanctions but will feel so for many of its prospective clients who are on benefits. There is a structural power imbalance between job centre employees and those on benefits. With their income under threat, those on benefits will be especially susceptible to cues, suggestibility and positive reinforcement when attending job centres. Many on benefits have experienced oppressive power relations for much of their lives. Saying no in relation to an apparent free choice in this context is hugely difficult, especially when saying no has uncertain consequences  .
Attempts to coerce people into work are detrimental not only to their health but to their safety and, in many cases, present a risk to life. The extreme fear and distress caused by the current welfare reforms, including changes in disability benefits and the new Work Capability Assessments, is widely reported including instances that have led to suicide . Therapy alongside this coercive system breaches the ethical principle of non-maleficence.
You state that there must be choice as to location of therapy. There is a clear danger in putting DWP representatives into GP surgeries, community centres and food banks that are seen as safe havens for people on low incomes and benefits. The presence of DWP compromises this. DWP/Maximus workers in the GP surgery, with access to medical records, will serve as a deterrent to people visiting their family doctor. The model currently in use in Islington allows Remploy/Maximus workers to access and write into GP records; this jeopardises any commitment to client privacy and confidentiality .
The choice of method of therapy is an illusion and therapists of all modalities are subject to the stresses of an unjust target driven culture . We are concerned that under-qualified and inexperienced staff, such as job centre coaches, will be in a position to make referrals to Health and Work programs. This is exacerbated by the fact that referrals are likely to be to IAPT workers, many of whom themselves lack in-depth training and experience of severe mental health issues. Inappropriate referrals are increasingly likely in a target-driven culture.
We are not reassured that the feasibility trials planned by the government will contribute to knowledge and understanding and are not reassured by your echoing what government is saying. Instead you and government must listen to the voices of survivors who describe the reality of government plans on their lives and are fighting for services with a vision of humanity beyond work .
It is clear from your public statement that you have failed to critically examine and scrutinise the ongoing activities of the Government Joint Work and Health Unit. We call on you to cease your engagement with this unit and instead hold a national stakeholder event which is guaranteed to involve the participation of representative organisations for service users and therapists with direct knowledge of the area, as well as professional bodies like yours. There should be no government involvement in such an event. From it, a representative group can be selected that will adequately represent the views of service users and therapists to the appropriate government departments as well as to the opposition.
- ‘Mental Health Advisor – Job Details’ Retrieved from http://www.bacp.co.uk/jobs/jobs.php November 21st, 2015. Available athttps://www.dropbox.com/s/a6p9mod1jb08dne/Mental%20Health%20Advisor%20-%20Job%20Details.docx?dl=0
- http://careers.g4s.com/jobs/Cognitive-Behavioural-Therapist_58526/6 crisis
- For a fuller discussion of these issues, see http://mh.bmj.com/content/41/1/40.
- Para 4.3 http://democracy.islington.gov.uk/documents/s6740/Health%20and%20work%20-%20HWB%20update%20Jan%202016%20final.pdf
Letter from psy-organisations to MWF, dated 24th March 2016:
Dear members of the Mental Wealth Foundation,
Thank you for your letter,
It might be useful if we started by clarifying a number of points that we have made repeatedly to the Department for Work and Pensions. We do not believe that anyone should be coerced into therapy and would denounce any coercion or sanctioning in relation to ‘job centre therapy’. As a result of ethical concerns raised last summer around coercion and sanctioning in relation to ‘job centre therapy’ we, as professional psychological therapy organisations, immediately contacted the Department for Work and Pensions. We were also acutely aware of, and remain acutely aware of, the wider context of sanctions and cuts.
Work is not always good for people’s mental health and wellbeing and we too recognize that poor quality, stressful and insecure employment can be detrimental and profoundly damaging. We also do not believe that employment should be viewed as a universally beneficial health outcome. At the same time, however, good employment can help people, by adding security and purpose to people’s lives, thus enhancing their mental well being. There should indeed not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach and we do not support a policy of work as cure.
We share the view that clients should have their current needs, perspective and autonomy respected but we also make it clear that we do not believe the role of therapists should be to get people back to work. Instead, we believe that the role of the therapist should always be to work with clients to help them resolve their mental health issues. We also do not believe people should receive psychological therapy in an environment where they feel uncomfortable and we do not believe client’s privacy should be compromised.
It is nevertheless important to recognise that access to psychological therapy remains restricted and people are suffering needlessly because of this. It is also the case that rates of mental health problems among people who are unemployed remain unacceptably high. There are likely to be a multitude of reasons for this, from loss of sense of purpose, to the stresses of the sanctions regime – and we wish to see all of these factors tackled. Improving voluntary access to psychological therapy for jobcentre clients is therefore a policy which deserves proper consideration and as organisations which represent psychological therapists, we recognise that the provision of appropriate, voluntary, therapy can play a role in alleviating distress.
The DWP has repeatedly told us that there will be no coercion involved or sanctioning of clients who do not wish to enter psychological therapy. It has also said that clients will have
a choice of where they can access their therapy. We have also secured a promise of a thorough evaluation of their planned small-scale co-location feasibility trial, which should provide a clear indication of whether people’s health and wellbeing is genuinely being improved in both the short and the long term. We suggest it is prudent to review these evaluations before prejudging a project that could provide genuine help to jobcentre clients who experience issues with their mental health.
We also note that your letter conflates different projects. Our organisations are concerned with the provision of therapy to jobcentre clients. We are mindful that other projects have
been initiated in regard to the co-location of work coaches in GPs surgeries, and that other organisations have engaged in scrutiny of these projects. We do not believe we are the most appropriate organisations to comment on those proposals, given they do not involve therapeutic coaches or psychological therapy – which is why our joint response made no mention of those plans.
We would also ask you to note that any past job adverts for positions outside of our organisations should in no way be regarded as the official opinion of any of our organisations individually or collectively.
The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
The British Psychoanalytic Council
The British Psychological Society
The UK Council for Psychotherapy
The MWF replied on 12 April 2016, raising further issues and proposing a meeting for further dialogue. At the time of writing, this and other requests to meet face-to-face have gone unacknowledged.
Mental Wealth Foundation
Mental Health Resistance Network; Disabled People Against Cuts; Recovery in the Bin; Boycott Workfare; The Survivors Trust; Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy; College of Psychoanalysts; Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility; Psychologists Against Austerity; Free Psychotherapy Network; Psychotherapists and Counsellors Union; Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network; Social Work Action Network (Mental Health Charter); National Unemployed Workers Combine; Merseyside County Association of Trades Union Councils; Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network; National Health Action Party
British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies; British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; British Psychoanalytic Council; British Psychological Society; United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy
Professional bodies scrutinise Government ‘therapists in job centres’ plans
Thank you for your response of 24 March 2016. We would like to reiterate our invitation to a dialogue around these issues. We are a unique alliance of 17 diverse organisations, representing clients, therapists, campaigners and academics with a unique breadth and depth of perspective. We would very much like to share this wealth of experience and expertise with you; and to understand your position better. We think your members would expect you to meet with us, given the very diverse range of organisations that have united in order to communicate with you.
We appreciate your assurances that you oppose as unethical any coercion or sanctioning connected with psychological therapy’s contribution to the government’s workfare programmes. We also welcome your statement that “[you] do not believe the role of therapists should be to get people back to work”, and that the therapeutic value of employment is conditional both on individual circumstance and the nature of any particular employment and its environment.
At the same time, we are aware that as members of the New Savoy Partnership four of your organisations have welcomed recent workfare proposals, have initiated collaboration between DoH and DWP on Health and Work pilots, and have invited Lord Freud as Minister of Welfare Reform to open a number of your recent annual conferences. Your ‘Joint Pledge on Welfare’ states:
“We welcome the opportunity the Work Programme provides to support more people with mental health conditions into appropriate and sustainable employment. Specifically, we will develop our expertise to help people with mental health conditions find, enter and remain in employment.” (emphasis added)
We cannot see how your position differs in any significant aspect from that of the DWP and you seem to have allowed yourselves to be drawn into becoming active partners in the government’s workfare policies. We believe – and we know many of your members agree – that the “psy” professions are being let down by our professional bodies going along with government aims and schemes, instead of using their professional knowledge together with service user experience to influence the proper provision of therapeutic services in more appropriate settings, for the benefit of clients and the profession. Clearly your views do in fact differ significantly from ours. Isn’t this something better explored at a meeting?
Over recent months, dozens of adverts for DWP financed mental health advisor and employment coach posts have invited applications from people accredited by you, including as we have already pointed out, those in Therapy Today. These job descriptions are explicit that the role is to get people off benefits and into work. Our concern remains that no action has been taken to inform or protect your members or their clients about involvement in work of this nature which breaches ethical practice.
The top-down nature of policymaking causes alienation and distrust of government workfare policies with a reliance on expert think-tank research, “evidence-based” reports, and a reluctance to engage in any real collaboration with either service users or practitioners. We are offering you an opportunity to do something different. We believe it is within your role and responsibility, as national professional bodies representing psychological therapies, counselling and psychotherapy in the UK, to hold open an independent arena of public debate on issues of national policy.
We believe your collusion with the government is now threatening to undermine the ethical integrity of the “psy” professions among service user/survivors and professionals. A year ago, our joint letter to the Guardian signed by 440 psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors raised the alarm about the probability of mandatory psychological therapy coming into being through the co-location of IAPT workers in Job Centres. A year on, the development of Health and Work projects under the DWP’s workfare banner is promoting more, not less fear, demoralisation, and distrust among the members of the organisations the MWF umbrella represents.
As survivors and witnesses of the impact of these developments, we are compelled to act against welfare to work policies and associated government-sanctioned psychological coercion which harms service users and professionals alike. You didn’t reply to our call to cease engagement with the Government Joint Work and Health Unit, and to hold a national event where all stakeholders views can be heard. We would like our campaign to include open debate with the professional bodies whose interests must surely include upholding the ethical values of psychological practice, for the sake of all.
We look forward to your response to our offer.