“May you live in interesting times”

The Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” is indeed upon us.

These past months the government has been negotiating one of its most ambitious cutbacks on the disability pensions in Danish history and now a new pension reform has come into existence.  Like the rest of Europe, the recession has cut deep and the newly (relatively speaking) elected government is looking to save money. How can it do that? Well, one of the ways has been to look at public spending and what becomes apparent is the huge number of people who are on some kind of government support and thereby not contributing to the work force.

Looking at the dry facts approximately 60%[i] of the Danish population 18 years and up are being supported by the government. If we break down the numbers to see who falls into this 60% we can see it includes all who are on a pension, both those who are on disability pensions, old age pensions, unemployment benefits of various kinds, supported work for the disabled and student grants. However, 60% on government support means that it is the remaining 40% who are the main contributors to the Danish economy and for some countries this must appear as quite an extraordinary social setup. Never the less it has functioned well and Denmark has been able to pride itself in having a very good standard of living. I will not be going into an analysis of the Danish society in general but will be looking at one aspect which is set to change due to the economic times, starting 2013.

The government needs to fill a hole in the coffers and by looking at this 60% they have singled out those on disability benefits, the group that I will be focusing on. But first let’s look at how many who are of working age (15 – 64 year olds) who are on government support. It turns out approximately 22%[ii] , of the potential work force is supported by the welfare system at this point in time.  22% equates to approximately 785,000 people who are, for various reasons, not working. Out of those 785,000 people, about 310,000[iii] people are on disability benefits which equates to about 40%.

Just a few other statistics before leaving the dry and dusty world of numbers. Denmark, just like other western countries, has seen a huge increase in the number of people being placed on support due to mental health problems. However, what is not generally known is that Denmark is the world leader[iv] in the number of people incapacitated by mental health issues and placed on support.  See the table which shows the number of new cases of people being placed on disability pensions due to mental distress. In 1999 27% of pensions given were due to mental distress, in 2008 the figure had changed to 48% and in 2009 the figure was over 50%.

It is this group which has inspired the government to find ways of saving money and which has inspired them to develope their Disability Reform anno 2012.

No person under the age of 40 is to be allowed to go on early pension unless it is patently obvious that they have no hope of working. Just how that is to be defined will be interesting to follow. Instead everyone is to be offered a rehabilitation package which is, (and it is here I start to become skeptical as I will explain later) to be individualized focusing primarily on education and jobs. Psychiatric systems will be a part of this package but are not the only players in the field; for example the social services will be more involved. So far so good. The trouble is that in reality this reform is to save money, quite a considerable amount, so though the government is saying they are investing 1.4 billion kroner towards rehabilitation programs, they are in fact saving 3.5 billion kroner. They are saving by placing people on a financial rehabilitation package which many have described as being below the official poverty line especially considering that many are likely to be living for many years on this small amount of money.

So what makes me skeptical? One of the major focuses is to get people out into the job market; the problem is it has been notoriously difficult to get employment when labeled by psychiatry, so why should it suddenly be possible now when unemployment is rampant (by Danish standards) and the recession is cutting deep? This has been one of the major debates since the reform was introduced; where are those jobs? What also seems to have been ignored is that the old system has always had within it the possibility of reentering the work force via protected work schemes or leaving the pension system and entering the work force on a full time basis. Another point is why are we suddenly talking of rehabilitation now? Was not the whole purpose of psychiatry to help people get better so that they could get on with their lives? What then has psychiatry been doing until now? Neither is there any indication of what kind of rehabilitation is in the cards, other than just stating people are to be rehabilitated.

Another aspect which makes me skeptical is the issue of human rights. The rehabilitation plans will be involving other agents, specifically the social workers who will be playing two opposing roles saving money, while being part of the team. One could be beguiled into thinking this could be potentially a good thing, as it opens the door to other agents, other than just psychiatry, but there are a number of matters which raise issues for concern. Denmark is not just one of the countries with of the highest taxes in the world but it also does a good job of being in the top five when looking at psychiatric treatment. Denmark has the dubious honor of being the country that has had the most people lobotomized and sterilized in relation to population number yet has been able to maintain an aura of compassionate care until fairly recently. The last few years they have had complaints from Amnesty International for example, the use of ‘Guantanamo’ style belts (patients are shackled hands and feet), as well as cases of patients being restrained in belts for months on end. Instead of listening, the government has merely created laws allowing for a continuation of that form of ‘treatment’ and thereby circumventing human rights by  saying human rights abuse are no longer present because we have through our laws made it legal.

Recently it has become public that the social system, poised to have even more power, has been practicing a dubious form of coercion. For it has been functioning as the psychiatrists extended arm by forcing people to take drugs and even submit to ECT using financial threats as a means to this end. What happened when this praxis was exposed? It was made legal[v] (ECT was excluded).

So do I think this reform is a good idea? Well; all big changes have within them the potential for growth, and I like to dream. One of my dreams has been doors opening to other agents outside of psychiatry in the world of mental distress, and here I see a crack appearing. The question again is will those who get through the crack be agents of oppression or genuine actors capable of making true change? Interesting times do certainly lie ahead, but will it be a curse?




  1. I’m skeptical, me too, and very much so. Earlier this year, to be more precise in June, we’ve both seen a couple of those getting through the cracks. Among them Michael Petterson, who tosses people labelled with “schizophrenia” into one and the same category with those with “autism, mental retardation, dementia” (cf. slide 26 of his presentation), understanding “schizophrenia” as a chronic disease, another Louise Kolbjørn, who enthusiastically announces that the “Knowledge Center’s” canteen (!) at the planned gigantic schizophrenia factory at Slagelse also will have a few jobs to offer for “patients”. According to the motto: we’ll kindly let you sweep the floor and do the dishes, yay!, but don’t expect us to let you have any influence on what kind of knowledge the center is going to collect and disseminate! That’s for “experts” only!

    There’s not just the pharmaceutical industry and a handful of (wannabe) medical specialists living (or should I say preying… ) on “mental illness”, but also a huge and growing governmental machinery, local, regional and national. Their jobs depend on keeping us oppressed, i.e. chronically brain diseased, disabled, and in dire need of one fancy rehabilitation project after the other. So far, what I see is that the reform primarily serves their interests, not ours. And as long as the powers that be refuse to look at why psychiatrised people end up qualifying to be tossed in one and the same category with people with “autism, mental retardation, dementia”, this will not change.

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  2. Very interesting post Olga, thanks for sharing, and similarities as to what is happening in Scotland. Particularly in terms of the getting people off disability benefits and into jobs, that don’t exist.

    I’ll have to read through your post again to think more on the ‘crack’ you mention, as in Leonard Cohen’s ‘There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in’. The opportunities that exist when the door is opened ever so slightly.

    For me in recent experiences of engagement with psychiatry where I live the social work service has collaborated with the system, rather than being on the side of the vulnerable person with ‘mental illness’. Adult protection being a misnomer for colluding with the powers that be to keep the mentally disordered straitjacketed.

    I find myself now having to speak out about this at any and every opportunity. While also engaging with mental health managers and decision makers. It’s an interesting and even enjoyable game of win some/lose some with the overall aim of enjoying the process if at all possible. Which does happen.

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  3. Psychiatry and government huh? A match made in heaven, if the objective is to destroy human dignity.

    While all this IS horrible, I must say, as I like to repeat this, because some people seem to be very misguided around what counts as a horror:

    ” The last few years they have had complaints from Amnesty International for example, the use of ‘Guantanamo’ style belts (patients are shackled hands and feet), as well as cases of patients being restrained in belts for months on end.”

    Amnesty International is notoriously silent on forced drugging, and yet is up in arms about mechanical restraints.

    Shackles and so on ARE horrible, but they are a walk in the park compared to raping people’s brains with forced drugging.

    Generally, people seem to think, not the author, just people, that because the restraint is chemical, and no obvious shackles can be seen on the person, that this person is being treated humanely. If you’re being forcibly drugged, you’re being restrained biologically. This is far more diabolical and invasive, and sickening, than any shackle manufacturer in human history could have ever envisaged.

    If you’re horrified by visible shackles, and mollified by the pretexts and explanations used to support forced drugging, you’re missing the point.

    Forced drugging is a breach of bodily integrity, and a far graver government invasion of the body than mere handcuffs.

    People get arrested all the time, innocent people, suspects, police departments around the world in a nonpsychiatry context, handcuff people, and it is traumatic and humiliating to be arrested to some extent, to have your arms shackled etc, but police departments don’t alter your brains.

    Maybe if they taser you, or put a bullet in you, they enter your body, and that is controversial, and every use of police firearms is accounted for and overseen.

    This bizarre situation we have now in the world, where Amnesty International, thinks shackles are more controversial than the brutal invasiveness of forced drugging! is a bizarre situation.

    Forced drugging is not “least restrictive” at all. It’s a clear cut case of the government forcibly remodeling your brain function, while you’re conscious. This is horrific.

    I am not scared of mechanical restraint, I am a little, I mean you can die, but I’m far more terrified of the cavalier expediency with which forced drugging is employed worldwide.

    As if it were no big thing.

    I think it’s because there is no dramatic photo of shackles to send to amnesty international.

    I think it’s because of the general chauvinism and contempt wider society has for the bodily integrity rights of people with psychiatric labels.

    There is much work to do, before the non-labeled, will see eye to eye with those labeled and believed to be “brain diseased” on a psychiatric hunch.

    Sadly all too often the rolls of the disability started with a violent injection from a bigot masquerading as a “helper” and before too long the young person is rendered disabled iatrogenically and then they’ll hand them a sheltered workshop job.

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    • Hi Anonymous

      I am so in agreement with you. The chemical invasion of the body is, for those subjected to this form of involuntary treatment, rape of the soul. Shackles and restraints are external humiliations but the chemical assault within the body is insidious, invisible and once inside the body it’s there to stay. One can only wait for the natural bodily processes to, with time, neutralize and remove the chemical substance from the body. This form of assault is far more acceptable for the outside world simply because after it is administered it is no longer a visible eyesore. shackles and restraints are visible and generate emotions also it lasts longer. Forced drugging takes the time it takes to administrate it after that what happens in the subjected person’s body continues invisibly and is therefore not a visible provocation to the outside world. The drugged person is quieted made more acceptable for the outside world and so the cycle continues.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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