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There is greater overlap between Scott Morrison’s old and new departments than may seem immediately obvious, in particular debates around the grey areas of psychological harm and mental illness.
In Morrison’s promotion to shake up welfare and trim the skyrocketing numbers of Australians on the disability pension, he will need to tackle arguments that he is causing psychological harm, much like one of the key criticisms against mandatory detention was the harm to mental health it allegedly caused asylum seekers.
The growing burden of our disability pension is related to mental health, which now comprise a third of all claims, a tripling over two decades according to government figures from 2011. A generation ago they would have been related to bad backs, but they are now troubled minds, a welfare marker of how modern distress is primarily channelled through the language of mental illness.
Mental illness is defined socially when emotional symptoms render us incapable of performing social or occupational roles. The cure depends upon returning the same sufferers to purposeful activity and meaningful relationships. The majority of mental illnesses wax and wane, which is exactly why the current system of treating them all as if they are incapable of ever working again is so damaging. It should be no surprise that almost 90% do exactly that and never re-enter the workforce.
For many on the margins of eligibility, there is an incentive to remain sick. The welfare market operates like any other – a better price will increase demand, and the disability pension is almost twenty percent higher than the Newstart allowance. This lack of incentive to take a more active role in society can strip them of meaning in their lives and perpetuate what may have started as mild mental illness.
A feedback loop of disability, welfare and worsening mental health is created. This is a hidden factor straining both Australia’s mental health and welfare systems. They are operating in a kind of pathological symbiosis.
This trend is further exacerbated by the marked structural shifts taking place in the economy, notably the sharp decline in manufacturing and unskilled work, much of which is becoming either automated or outsourced. For a growing proportion of the middle aged out of work, a mental health diagnosis is really a more acceptable, tangible way to communicate a feeling of unemployability or demoralisation.
Paul Sladdin, the Victorian head of the Men’s Shed movement, notes that there has been a growing number of younger men in their forties and fifties becoming members. Men’s Shed provides a space for out of work men to meet and socialise as well as work with their hands towards local community projects.
The entrenched, negative mindsets of this category may be a reason for the poor uptake in the government’s Restart program to help those over the age of fifty return to work. Another factor may be the greater reluctance to undertake jobs considered below the worker’s qualifications.
When the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited two months ago, one element of praise he gave towards the Australian way of life was the innate dignity we place on work of all kinds, be it blue collar, service or professional. This is in marked contrast to the status and hierarchial obsessions paramount in sections of Indian society.
But there is some evidence that Modi may have overstated this trait. A study often quoted by social workers is that the unemployed report feeling more upbeat not working at all versus taking on jobs below their qualifications. Despite the measure being very short term, there is evidence, particularly from Britain, that the idea carries weight in Western societies. A 2007 British Home Office study found that not only were immigrant workers not taking the jobs of locals, but British workers reported perceptions that lowly service or manual work was for Eastern European workers. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver poured fuel on the issue when he said last year that Polish workers had a stronger work ethic than ordinary British workers, many of whom had expectations of a dream job awaiting them in the not too distant future.
It is unlikely trends are any different in Australia, where the lowest tiers of service and manual work are increasingly undertaken by newly arrived immigrants and international students.
The growing domination of psychological claims within our welfare system are a symptom of a wider malaise in Western societies, driven by marked structural changes in our economy and society. Morrison will have his work cut out to ameliorate or skewer the trends in any significant way, but his proven history in staring down overblown claims surrounding psychological harm give him a strong foundation.