A lot of people complain about the way WINZ treats its clients, but their logic makes a certain sense. By verbally and psychologically abusing many of the people who come to them for help, WINZ staff sharply reduce demand for WINZ services and thereby save taxpayer money. This is called WINZ logic, and our mental health system runs by the same principles.
WINZ logic seems to appeal to the vast majority of New Zealanders. We like to consider ourselves a people who have “hardened up”, and who don’t need faggy things like welfare. Moreover, the high levels of diversity in our society mean that those at the top are unwilling to pay taxes for the greater good, because those taxes won’t be helping people like them. So we make sure that WINZ runs an extremely tight ship, where there is absolutely no wastage.
Somewhere along the way, someone working at WINZ realised that many of their clients could easily be discouraged from seeking WINZ services. Many people who need WINZ services are socially outcast or psychologically damaged, and so they are easily disheartened by abuse. If these people were spoken to like thieving, bludging, malingering scum, instead of being treated like fellow humans who need help, they were less likely to come back and ask for more money.
Ultimately, the essence of WINZ logic is this: the more unpleasant the experience of being a WINZ client can be made, the fewer resources WINZ clients will collectively consume.
With ever-tightening social welfare budgets under nine years of a National-led Government, treating the clients badly became the default way to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. If someone really needed a benefit, WINZ logic claimed, they’d keep coming back despite the mistreatment. So treating the clients badly achieves the twin goals of saving money while still helping the needy.
Unfortunately, our mental health system works on the same logic. In order to save money, patients are systematically verbally and emotionally abused by support workers. They don’t admit to this, and nowhere is it written that this is official policy, but it’s apparent from collating the experiences of many users of the mental health services that this is the case.
The logic appears to be that it’s better for a hundred schizophrenics to starve in the street than it is for one person to perhaps get a benefit that they didn’t 100% need. After all, a severely mentally ill young person who is unlikely to work again is liable to cost the country up to half a million dollars in benefit payments alone over the course of their lives. If people like this could be convinced to commit suicide instead, the potential savings could run into the hundreds of millions.
This might sound implausible to some, but it’s a natural consequence of neoliberal reasoning. Human life has a dollar value. If mentally ill people can’t contribute to the tax farm, and if we can’t just kill them directly, we have to encourage them to kill themselves. This reasoning was introduced to New Zealand by Ruth Richardson in the 1991 Budget and it’s now an indelible part of our culture. After all, we already have “by far the highest youth suicide rates in the developed world”.
If this wasn’t true, then the experience of being a user of the mental health services would be entirely different. One would be treated much like a person ill with a physical illness – as a fellow human being who had had something unfortunate happen to them and required care in order to recover to normal function. Doctors would answer your questions honestly. Consultations would work towards improving your mental health rather than merely assessing your work readiness.
Further evidence for this comes from the refusal to acknowledge cannabis medicine. Despite the fact that there was enough evidence for the medicinal value of cannabis for California to make it legal already in 1996, New Zealand politicians and doctors still have their heads up their arses. Now even Zimbabwe has legal medicinal cannabis.
What this approach to cannabis tells the mentally ill in New Zealand is that the mental health system isn’t really interested in helping them. It’s just: “Take these sedatives and get back to picking cotton.” It wouldn’t matter if 100,000 people all lined up to tell doctors that cannabis had helped them sleep or had helped with anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation. No-one’s listening, no-one cares.
Our mental health system shouldn’t run on the WINZ logic of withholding aid to as many people as possible. It should be recognised that an investment in a person’s mental health now will have excellent returns in both their future productivity and future unwillingness to use mental health services. The emphasis should be on treating them well so that they can get better and we can save money over their lifetime, not treating them like shit to save money this month.
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