Jean Vanier

People with mental health problems and learning difficulties are the subject of two articles in this week’s Church Times.

The two articles were printed alongside each other, and between them they told both a negative and a positive story.

Negatively, one of the articles begins

More than 100 people with mental-health problems are having their benefits cut each day, effectively because of their condition.

The information was produced in a Freedom of Information request by the Methodist Church. It shows that

the most common reason for being sanctioned is that a person has been late, or not turned up, for a Work Programme appointment.

The Methodist spokesman, Paul Morrison, commented that this is ‘like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping’. The CEO of the mental health charity Mind , Paul Farmer, adds:

Stopping benefits does not help people with mental-health problems back into work. In fact, it often results in people becoming more anxious and unwell, and this makes a return to work less likely.

The other article reported on Jean Vanier’s talk in the House of Lords on Monday, on the subject of why the strong need the weak. Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche community. He said:

When people have been trained to trust themselves and not others, it’s a long road… My hope one day is that they will fall down and break their leg, and then maybe in hospital, in a little bit of quiet time, they can change.

Regarding the L’Arche communities, he said,

A lot of young people come to do good, but they have also been formed by a culture of winning, of success, of being recognised, applauded, and so on. And so, when those who are moving up to the top through education meet those who are at the bottom of society, something happens. There’s a spark, and both groups change. People who came to do good discover that the people with disabilities are doing them good: they are becoming more human.

Putting these articles together, we are witnessing two completely contradictory attitudes to people with mental health problems. In one they play their own part in the spectrum of human personalities and activities. They belong to us and we belong to them. None of us chooses which body or which brain to live with. We accept the differences. Each of us plays a different part. Between us we get the work done and we get the celebrating done.

The other attitude is that they are a problem. We know the reasons for the sanctions only too well, since political rhetoric is full of them. Benefit recipients are a drain on the economy. They should be made to get a job. Those who can’t get a job - if only they didn’t exist! We the hard-working taxpayers are subsidising them. They make us worse off, and they stop the economy growing.

So these are not only contradictory attitudes to people with mental health problems. They are also contradictory answers to the question ‘What is human life for?’ They are about all of us.

Is life about enjoying each other’s company, doing things for each other and giving and receiving love in the process? Or is it about constantly striving towards a different future state, pouring all available resources into skills and technologies designed to achieve it? In one case people with mental health problems are part of the rich diversity of life, to be accepted and valued for what they are. In the other case they are a drain on the rest of us, preventing us from doing better.

The present UK Government’s regime of sanctioning those with mental health issues is a particularly unpleasant example of a more general disdain for people who do not contribute to the economy. What it feels like for a person with learning difficulties to have no money is something they do not measure, so it gets ignored. This is not the same as Adolf Hitler’s attitude to people with learning difficulties, but it is heading in that direction.

There has never been a time when most people engaged in economic activity. There have always been more people who are too old or too young or too ill or too handicapped. We should not see this as a problem, because there are also enough people able to do the work and look after them.

God of love, when my life isn’t making any progress, give me someone who needs my help.