05 July 2018

Disability welfare reform must start at the top

Yet another terrible story of a seriously ill person being told by Centrelink that they don't qualify for the disability support pension.

Single father Robert Laughlin is battling stage 3 bowel cancer. He's currently in a Melbourne hospital, unable to speak or move much, and being fed via tube; obviously unable to work or look for work. Centrelink have denied his Disability Support Pension application, forcing him on to the lower rate Newstart unemployment payment, with its "mutual obligation" requirements to report to Centrelink offices and apply for 20 jobs a fortnight. His family are rightly and justifiably furious. 

Unfortunately Centrelink have come back with their standard response to these issues: “We recognise medical conditions can have a significant impact on people’s lives; however, we do not have any discretion to grant payments outside the very clear criteria set down in legislation.”

This problem comes up again and again. In order to qualify for the disability support pension, a person's condition must be treated, permanent, fully diagnosed and stabilised. And even that isn't enough; you still need to be assessed by Centrelink health assessors, who can override the recommendations of your own treating physicians if they do not believe that your condition is sufficiently grave to disqualify you from any kind of work.

So, there's probably not much point speaking to Centrelink themselves about this. If it's a problem with the legislation, we need to change the legislation. We need to be putting pressure on the government. Either the criteria for Disability Support Pension needs to change, or we need a new payment that covers people in situations where their illness may not be stable or permanent, but they are still unable to work.

And the assessment of ability to work must be realistic, not based on the wishful thinking of conservatives that anyone can get a job if they just try hard enough. (Someone on Twitter said - and I wish I could find it so I could give them credit - that telling an unemployed person "the best form of welfare is a job" is like telling a drowning person "the best solution for drowning is fresh air").

Getting the current government to make life a little bit easier for those facing difficulty with it, however, will be like teaching a cat to waterski by giving it written instructions. The current Minister for Human Services is Michael Keenan. No, I'd never heard of him either. But the top two stories on his ministerial website laud the praises of charging interest on welfare debt repayments and a crack down on welfare cheats in Mount Druitt, so I'm guessing the guy isn't operating off a basis of compassion, or for that matter evidence. Nevertheless, there's a contact form on his website, so I'll be firing off a message today. (I'm always cordial when I do this, FWIW). I'd also recommend contacting your MP. Let's make this an election issue. If Labor and the Greens supported this, the Liberals would probably have to as well to avoid looking like dickheads.

There's an argument heard against increasing the rate of Newstart allowance: it's only meant to be a temporary payment. It's meant to tide you over during gaps in employment; it doesn't need to be livable because it's not meant to be a payment you live on. But changes to the disability support pension mean that for many people it is an allowance they live on for extended periods; they have no reasonable prospect of work, but are not deemed ill enough - or their condition is deteriorating, and not therefore stable - to receive the disability payment. It's a ridiculous, heartbreaking and ultimately untenable situation. Ordinary people know this; now we need to get our politicians to know it as well.

25 June 2018

Pens down

Today is a day I thought would never come.

When I started my Bachelor of Social Science degree, my first, at the University of Newcastle back in 2013, I knew it wasn't going to be easy studying with a small child; but I was determined to make something of myself. I didn't want to work in call centres forever. I wanted to do some good in the world.

I had no idea what was to come. Since those first exciting lectures, I have moved from Newcastle to Sydney (switching to the University of Sydney) to the Central Coast and back to Sydney. My marriage ended and I've had a bunch of housing instability and other issues. And through (almost) all of it, I kept at my studies. There were times I was exhausted physically and emotionally from long commutes and passing up time with my child to get assignments done and poverty and just wanting to give up and go work in a shop, but I knew I had to keep going.

And along the way the familiar sandstone - and hideous 1960s buildings - of the University of Sydney became a second home to me. Sometimes, even a first home. It was my anchor, my refuge. Who cares what else is going on? Come here, and study. I adored my classes.

I think I might miss it.

Because today is a day I could barely imagine during all the years I had to screw my courage to the sippy cup, and keep going. I took my last exam. That's it - I'm done. I've completed all the requirements of my degree.

It may not be the degree I initially wanted, but it's still a degree from the University of Sydney, something that seemed the stuff of fairy tales when I was a teenager doing miserably average at a run down comprehensive high school in regional NSW. If it was achieved in hellish circumstances, well then I can appreciate it more.

I recently found a box of old diaries. An entry I made just before I turned 30 set out my goals for the next decade. Life didn't turn out how I planned then, but I can tick one item off the list: get a degree by age 40. Now I have done it. (Next - a PhD by 50). Pens down. Or as I prefer, from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyáma: Tamam Shud. It is finished.

And now I need to get a job. 

19 June 2018

ABC bias and other urban legends

The Coalition government would like to privatise the ABC. Of course they would, because they can't see the value in anything you can't turn a profit from, especially not one that allows the unwashed masses access to better investigative journalism, local news, drama, comedy, arts and music than they can enjoy on any of the free commercial networks. Selling the ABC has been on their wet dream list for years, as was confirmed on the weekend, when the Liberal party federal council meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour of the sale. I mean, they'd hand the public broadcaster over to Rupert Murdoch in exchange for keeping what copper wire they could rip out of ABC HQ at Ultimo, if they thought they could get away with it.

But they know selling the ABC would be up there with dismantling Medicare as something they yearn to do but would be too deeply publicly unpopular to contemplate, prompting Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to sanctimoniously declare:

Which might be a little more plausible if there weren't scores of instances of government ministers and advisers stating publicly that the ABC should be privatised, including from Senator Fifield himself. Although it was fun for the rest of the day to see the LNP hacks rushing to defend the Senator by declaring that the Coalition will never, ever sell the beloved public institution that is the stinking pile of biased crap at the ABC.

Ah, that old clanger. ABC bias. The running commentary from those who want to sell off the ABC that it is a complete lefty/Labor/Greens love in, which successive LNP governments are powerless to rectify. I mean, I can see their point. I was watching Gardening Australia last week, and the segment was supposedly about winter garden maintenance but Costa wouldn't shut up about raising corporate tax rates. Those opposed to the ABC are convinced there's a left wing bias, but they seem uncertain just what that bias is.

I asked on Twitter for specific examples of bias, but no one mentioned any. In all the commentary on the privatisation vote, I saw many mentions of ABC bias, but never any specific examples other than allusions to the ABC accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. Which is something, huh? If the ABC was biased, you'd think they'd be able, heck eager, to provide evidence of this. Lefty types on Twitter frequently raise allegations that 7.30 host Leigh Sales is harder on Bill Shorten in interviews than when she speaks to Malcolm Turnbull, which, whether or not you agree with it, is at least a specific example of bias. But online commenters wanting to sell the ABC couldn't name any bias at all. Some of them, in fact, were so completely convinced of ABC bias they haven't been able to bring themselves to watch in many, many years, judging from one outraged non viewer convinced Tony Jones is both biased and blond.

But they've got nothing in the way of proof. It doesn't faze them, though. No matter how many IPA members appear running the neocon line on The Drum, no matter how many Liberal politicians and supporters are featured on Q and A, no matter if interviews with government figures are soft balled, no matter even that quantitative studies show the ABC has, if anything, a slight right wing slant; the side that proclaims itself to be on the side of cool headed facts over emotions, of "reals before feels", are relying on what they just know deep down to tell themselves the ABC is biased, in the place of any actual evidence. ABC bias is like the story you saw on Facebook about the friend of a friend of a friend's child who was kidnapped at a shopping centre, taken into the toilets to have their head shaved, and was about to be bundled into a getaway car when police swooped, warning no one to speak of this for fear of causing a panic (can you believe, in this day and age with all the resources we have at our disposal, people still fall for this shit). It's a myth, and urban legend, tale spread by those who don't know any better and pushed by those who profit from the lie.

Although Andrew Bolt did propose a test of ABC bias: see if any of its presenters believe it should be sold off. That none will say so, apparently, is proof the ABC if biased. And if the ABC drowns, we'll know it wasn't a witch.

15 June 2018

This is what happens when you reach out and get help

With the recent, much publicised suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, social media was flooded with messages urging anyone suffering depression or thoughts of self harm to reach out...get help. I know people mean well. But what help is there?

I've been hesitant to write this post, but what the hell, let's go all in. This is what happens when you reach out. If you call a suicide hotline - always promoted as the best option despite dubious proof of efficacy - or tell any sort of health or counselling professional that you are having thoughts of self harm, they are legally required to report it. Me, I was too tired to hide from my psychiatrist my utter despair. So they call 000, or the relevant emergency number. Ambulance officers arrive, and under the Mental Health Act 2007 here in NSW, are legally authorised to detain you if they believe you are mentally ill or mentally disturbed ("no, I'm not mentally disturbed, I'm having a completely justified reaction to the shit heap my life has become").

The ambulance officers will then take you to hospital. If you're "lucky", you might go straight to the mental health unit. Me? It was a weekday, mid morning, and the newly opened mental health unit did not have beds available. So. Usually, you'll have to go sit in emergency. I hadn't taken anything, physically I was fine, I just felt like an utter wreck. And there you have to sit, with an ambo to babysit you, surrounded by suspected heart attacks and falls and babies with suspected meningococcal. At some stage it was decided it was easier to knock me out, so they put me in a bed and put benzodiazepines in me, which I willingly took - believe me, I'm much happier unconscious. So that was a blurry six hours. A psychiatrist came to talk to me. I saw her report when I left hospital. She wrote in the notes that I look older than my stated age. Well thanks, that just made me feel fucking fantastic. Do they do that for heart attack victims?

After a prolonged time, and still semi sedated, I was moved to the mental health unit. They confiscate and catalogue all your possessions. Again, do they do this with heart attack victims? Go through their bags and take their squeez bacon? Mental health patients can't be trusted with their stuff, apparently. I mean, I can kind of understand; they told me phones are taken because people will call 000 and report they've been kidnapped. But all my books were on my phone. They told me I could read the books belonging to the unit. Jodi Picoult. I shudder. I asked for a bible. The didn't have any but the chaplain visits once a week. That's very helpful. I wasn't allowed to leave that day.

Look, apart from the comment about my age, which I'll let slide, the staff were all very nice. But it was still pretty gross and dehumanising. Some of the other patients were glad of the opportunity to connect with social workers and support, but I was tired and wanted to go home.

Then the next morning, I saw the psych team. I put on my cheerful face. Yes I'm feeling much better. Actually, I wasn't feeling any better, and miserable from being in hospital. But I put on the happy face and was able to go home.

That's all there is to offer. If you reach out, and tell someone you're contemplating self harm or ending your life, this is what will happen to you.

So, imagine feeling like you want to end your life, then being put through the demeaning, dehumanising process of a psychiatric hold. I want to be very clear on this: it is not working. It is not working. When you reach out and get help, the help system there is is broken. It might psychically stop a person from committing suicide whilst they are in the psych unit, but it is such an awful experience that person will lie, say they are fine, to get out as fast as they can. The NSW Coroner's website alone lists scores of inquiries into people who were recently discharged from psych units then took their own lives. The way we "help"  doing is making things worse.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about suicide, a lot of emphasis on the individual rather than a sick and broken society. The suicides of the rich and well connected prove it can happen to anyone. And this is true, but suicide is more likely to happen to the disadvantaged, the poor, the abused, the unemployed, LGTBI people. We don't hear about it as much, that's all. The photogenic girl from a caring family who commits suicide seemingly from nowhere gets the media attention, but it's the young person without the loving family and support network that is more at risk. 

For some people, mental illness and suicide ideation comes out of the blue, for no reason. But for many others, it's a reaction to abuse, chronic pain, isolation, poverty, unemployment. These suicides on the fringes of society are not the ones we know and mourn, but their lives matter.

We need to move away from a mindset that removes depression from its societal context and puts the emphasis on the individual to get help. We need to look at the problems in society that are causing all this pain - and the relentless push to be happy that further isolates those who are suffering; this is a great post about the toxic culture of happiness. A bit of research into the use of psychotropic drugs would be good, too. Because as things stand, if my mind gets filled with the black sludge of misery again, I won't be reaching out for help. There isn't any.

06 June 2018

Baby boomers: change the system or end up in the terrible nursing homes you deserve

I think I may have mentioned this, but I don't like neoliberalism.

That's okay, because most other people don't like it either. They just don't know it. But the ideology which has spread like a cancer through society for forty years - the ideology of maximising profit at all costs, cutting regulation, firing staff, user pays, and the hell with the values of compassion and decency that just get in the way of making money - they hate it. You can see it in the complaints about the terrible toll neoliberalism has racked on our society - everything from self checkouts, telcos sending jobs offshore so you speak to someone overseas who tells you your service won't be fixed for 6 weeks and can't conceive why that's a problem; TAFE unattainable and unaffordable, people with serious disabilities forced to look for work they cannot do, then they hate it.

The Liberal party and to a slightly lesser extent Labor party believe that government should "get out of the way" and let business do its thing, as free from regulation, and taxation, as possible. Therein lies job creation. But corporations pursuing profit above all won't employ a single person they don't have to, and often rather fewer people than that, as you'd know if you shopped retail or called your phone company lately. Government bureaucracies, similarly driven by KPIs and the relentless drive for efficiency, are little better.

And if anyone objects, says this is unregulated neoliberal capitalism and it's time to reign it in, oh the howls of protest from those in power. You want socialism! You want us to be Venezuela!

But a free market system that puts human services in the hands of barely regulated, for profit corporations, terrible nursing homes are the inevitable, and symbolic, result.

Nursing homes really epitomise what free market capitalism has become. The government has shifted human services to the private sector. Privately run nursing homes, free of regulation and heart, can stack elderly and dying people like firewood with a minimum of staff and count the profits coming in, hailed as successful business people driving the economy, and meanwhile it's the poor schlub who left a substandard school early, can't get a place at TAFE, and has lost heart after months of futile job searching who is called a parasite.  

Nursing homes are increasingly owned by foreign conglomerates. Research shows nursing homes owned by group capital consistently perform worse than non profit facilities across all measures of patient care. If you spend your lifetime voting for neoliberal economic policies, then a for profit nursing home is where you’re going to end up. Choice is not going to provide much comfort when the general standard is terrible. When you have media exposure like the Four Corners episode, people are outraged for a bit, then everything continues on as normal, because it's the underlying system that is terrible. The Baby Boomers are starting to go into nursing homes; by 2030 - that's 12 years away, think how recent 2006 seems by comparison - there will be half a million of them. And if we don't act now to make some pretty fundamental changes to our political and economic systems, these shitty nursing homes are what they all have to look forward to. We've already seen this in for profit care of at risk kids.

What do we value most as a society? What values do we vote for? If that's unregulated, profit driven capitalism, then as a society we're all headed for profit driven nursing homes that employ as few staff as possible, serve the cheapest possible food, skimp on medical necessities, and leave us to rot in our filth. There are high rates of depression and suicide in nursing home residents.

It's extremely stressful not only for the patients, but the families, the overworked staff. There are no minimum patient to nurse ratios and the complaints process basically consists of receiving a complaint, asking the nursing home did they do anything wrong, and when the nursing home writes back to say they didn't do anything wrong, closing the case (now where have I heard that before?)

But hey, when we die from that bedsore that festered after we were left in one position for 18 hours, at least our loved ones can show they cared with a hideously overpriced funeral! This is harsh, but it's the truth. These are hard conversations to have. It's hard for us to admit that we've lost sight of what's fair and decent in the last 40 years, and it will be even harder to turn things around. But Baby Boomers need to ask themselves what happens when they can no longer manage all the caravanning and being a grey nomad, when spending their kids' inheritance gets really old and so do they. As a society, we all need to shift our values, stop putting profits above people, and vote accordingly.

Because if we live by the profit motive, we'll die by the profit motive.