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Building back better together

Dr Clare Edge with a review of SICK! Festival Mindscapes.

15 June 2021

Manchester-based collaborators and researchers and Rotterdam-based artist Merel Smitt’s collaboration, While Waiting, Wait Here, is part of the SICK! Festival Mindscapes programme. After taking part in The Big Debate session as part of Mindscapes, this time I explored an online interactive art installation based on research exploring job seekers and their participation in the UK benefits system.

The collaboration involved Community Psychologist Professor Rebecca Lawthom (Manchester Metropolitan University), amongst other researchers. It creatively depicts stories of people in times of economic hardship accessing Universal Credit, including those who need welfare support due to mental ill health and physical ill health. Based in an office room scenario, the interactive online installation powerfully explores the disempowerment and frustration people can feel in the welfare admin system.

When I enter the office space I am welcomed by ‘Susan’ and then asked to take a six-digit number, after which I find myself in an office area with a number of files I am able to click on. I’m presented with a long message compressed into a small box that gives me an instant sense of confusion and frustration, heightened by the sound of typing and the constant whirring of a photocopier in the background. At the end of the message, once I have painstakingly scrolled down I am struck by the words ‘be proactive not lazy: find the joy in waiting, not complaining… sanctions are needed because we need the ones who pay for the system to know that it is actually working!’. Here the artist interprets the real life and frustrating emotional impacts of people within the system waiting to get support, as well as the political sense of people being punished for being recipients of welfare through sanctions.

At the top of the page is a banner of revolving text highlighting devastating stories of people who have tragically died while recipients of state welfare – a disabled man who starved to death, an anorexic mother found dead in a freezing flat after her Universal Credit was cut because she was too ill to attend meetings – as well the impacts of the system on children’s mental health.

The sense of disempowerment within the ‘support’ to find work is demonstrated particularly well by the ‘Creative Confidence Workshop’ material I find myself clicking on, encouraging me to be ‘someone who follows the rules instead of questioning them’ and ‘someone who is great at following orders’. Another file gives me the ‘DIY Workshop’, which outlines an exercise exploring ‘what is your most memorable bureaucratic experience’ and encourages people to uncover the social norms under the assumptions made when people have been made to feel powerless, not listened to and unheard. The movement that I am proud to be part of, Critical Community Psychology, aims to amplify these very issues from the perspective of those who are disempowered at the hands of the system by building a social movement with an ethical commitment to working with the disadvantaged and oppressed (Kagan et al., 2011; Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997).

The sense of helplessness powerfully portrayed in While Waiting, Wait Here was echoed in Manchester Mood Drawing, across the Manchester Metrolink Network. The exhibition illustrates stories of people exploring a number of issues surrounding health and mental ill health, such as homelessness, welfare and how ill health and mental ill health can impact on people leaving them feeling helpless. One drawing outlines the story of Steven (40 years old) who had lived on and off the streets in Manchester since he was 13: ‘I have been registered and re-registered and reassessed so often. I feel neglected ALL I WANT IS MY OWN PLACE’. Another drawing outlines the story of an individual who worked as a refuse collector and their struggles with their wife becoming unwell: ‘she was diagnosed with neuropathy (a nerve disease) … I was worried about money focussing on the negatives was wearing me out… I stopped going to work because someone had to be with her all the time’.

The social and health inequalities seen in the North West regions underline these voices (Office for National Statistics, 2021). The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems and there have been demonstrated negative impacts on mental ill health in the general population (Knolle et al., 2021). Campbell and Murray (2004) describe psycho-social mediators between community participation and health as well as the role of partnerships in creating ‘healthy communities’.

The promotion of social justice, as well as the health and wellbeing of the general population, will be crucial to the UK Government’s commitment to ‘Build Back Better’. More collaborations like this, between Psychologists and the people who are feeling the direct negative impacts, are needed to build a better, more compassionate society that works for everyone.

- Reviewed by Dr Clare Edge, Lecturer in Psychology at University of Salford. [email protected]

Campbell, C. & Murray M. (2004) Community health psychology: promoting analysis and action for social change. Journal of Health Psychology, 9(2), 187-95.
Kagan, C., Burton, M., Duckett, P., Lawthom, R. & Siddiquee, A. (2011). Critical Community Psychology. Chichester: Wiley.
Knolle, F., Ronan, L. & Murray, G.K. (2021). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: a comparison between Germany and the UK. BMC Psychol 9, 60.
Office for National Statistics (2021) Health state life expectancies by national deprivation deciles, England: 2017 to 2019.
Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. (1997). Community psychology: Reclaiming social justice. In D. Fox & I. Prilleltensky (Eds.), Critical psychology: An introduction (p. 166–184). Sage Publications, Inc.