Trade union colleague has a mental-health condition? DON’T PANIC! Some useful guidelines on how to cope.

As a trade unionist it’s become increasingly apparent to me that there is a need for guidance for trade unionists, and for members of the wider Left generally, on how to cope when they have a colleague who has a mental-health condition.

I was until recently Vice Chair of the University and College Union in Wales, but was then deemed unfit to hold elected office in the Union by my Wales Council colleagues on grounds of having a mental health condition. This followed my union colluding with another trade union, PCS, in setting the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare reforms.

Mental health conditions are very common – one in four of UCU’s members has a mental health condition. If a union’s leadership is to be representative of its membership, then people with mental health conditions should be able to participate fully in the union’s activities and democratic processes, including holding elected office.

It proved extraordinarily difficult to determine UCU’s degree of complicity in PCS setting the police on me – or indeed to obtain any information whatsoever about the matter, nor to get anyone to talk to me, as the union’s leadership appears to operate a strict no-engagement policy with its officers with mental-health conditions (fair enough, mental health is highly contagious).

So I had to resort to making a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act (DPA SAR) for the correspondence between UCU and PCS, and between my colleagues, concerning myself, to try figure out what on earth was going on.

So I eventually received from UCU’s legal department, more than 5 months after the police had come to my door at midnight to interrogate me about my “criminal intentions” toward PCS members, a pile of redacted emails in which my colleagues display an attitude toward people with mental health conditions of quite extraordinary ignorance and prejudice.

No-one in PCS has contacted me to tell me why they set the police on me. But a member of the UCU delegation to the TUC Women’s Conference in March (of which I was also a member) was told by a Wales member of the PCS delegation, by way of explanation, that PCS had set the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare Reforms killing 73 disabled people a week because “They’ve never experienced activism from someone with a mental health condition before. They just panicked.”

I thought it would be useful therefore, for both UCU and PCS, and the wider trade union movement, if I used the material from the DPA SAR in what I hope is a constructive way to try to address some of the ignorance and misconceptions that officers and officials in both unions have toward their colleagues with mental health conditions.

the charges

The above email is from a senior colleague in UCU Wales with whom I serve on national committees. Reading this, more than five months after the events in question, was the first time I learned of the allegations against me. It came as a considerable surprise to me that I had threatened violence against PCS members, and that I had threatened to set myself alight outside Transport House (the Wales TUC headquarters in Cardiff which also housed PCS Wales).

I have never committed an act of violence – nor threatened violence – against anyone. Ever. In my life. My colleagues on UCU Wales Council, and all the full-time officials of UCU dealing with this, and the PCS officials who reported this, appear to have believed without question these quite extraordinary allegations about someone they knew, worked with, and saw frequently. This says a great deal about how ingrained in both UCU and PCS are the ignorant and discriminatory attitudes of people with mental health conditions, and the belief that people with mental health conditions are “unbalanced” (in the words of my colleagues above), dangerous, and a risk to others.

come to Transport House and make a fuss

This email appears to be from a UCU official reporting a conversation with a PCS official. As I explain in an open letter to PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, all I did at the meeting in question, which I attended as convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, was make a robust but entirely legitimate challenge to a PCS national vice president over the fact that PCS in Wales was refusing to work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of its own DWP Group Conference motions.

In fact, I was in a position to prove conclusively that I never made any threats of violence against PCS members, and I never made any threat to set myself alight outside Transport House: as we do with all our direct actions, one of our disabled activists recorded the entirety of the meeting, including every utterance I made.

But I was never given a chance to respond to these utterly ludicrous accusations against me. And I only learned of these allegations more than five months later through a DPA SAR.

How should the writers of these emails (and the PCS officials who contacted UCU and set the police on me) have reacted instead?

The answer to that can be found in the answer to this question: How would these officers and officials have reacted on hearing these allegations had I not had a mental health condition?

  • They would have probably (based on their knowledge of me) been sceptical.
  • They would have probably attempted to ascertain the truth.
  • As part of trying to ascertain the truth, they would almost certainly have called me. All the people involved in the two emails above have my mobile number.
  • It is very unlikely that they would have reported the matter to the police (going through the above steps would have resolved the matter and made involving the police unnecessary).

In fact, in asking how UCU would have dealt with a serious complaint from another trade union against one of our members if that member did not have a mental health condition, we don’t have to rely on conjecture. I am not the only person in UCU Wales against whom another trade union has recently made an unfounded complaint. As explained here, a colleague in UCU Wales was on the receiving end of a complaint from Unite. But in his case, he was not only informed of it by UCU. UCU gave him an opportunity to respond to the allegations. He was believed. And was given the opportunity to give his side of the story to the assembled delegates of UCU Wales Congress and ask for support.

The difference between the way UCU handled the complaint against me compared to that against my colleague could not be more stark. The only difference is that one of the members has a mental health condition – and therefore all accusations of deranged and threatening conduct, no matter how bizarre or unlikely, and believed by UCU without question. Because that is the way people with mental health conditions generally behave.

Liza needs some help

My argument with PCS as the convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales was an entirely rational one, and was moreover a position that had been democratically arrived-at through debate within the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales. I did not, in fact, “need some help”, as the positions I was advocating had nothing to do with my mental-health condition.

Nor was my challenge to the PCS national vice president a manifestation of mental ill-health in any way. I challenged him over the fact that PCS in Wales was refusing to work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of its own DWP Group Conference motions.

It is disturbing that criticising PCS on a matter that profoundly impacts on myself and hundreds of thousands of other disabled people is so strongly considered by UCU’s leadership (I believe this email comes from the General Secretary herself) to be incompatible with holding elected office in UCU. If fighting for the interests of disabled people is considered incompatible with holding elected office in a trade union, then we seriously need to consider what the purpose of trade unions is. Particularly given that higher and further education, where UCU’s members work, is considered by the Health and Safety Executive as being one of the most dangerous industrial environments in terms of people becoming disabled as a result of intolerably high levels of workplace stress.

It is also disturbing that, while my employer (a university) is required by Statute to respect my academic freedom, including freedom to advocate positions that may cause offense, UCU does not appear to respect the right of its elected officers to challenge others in the trade union movement, no matter how legitimate that criticism may be.

The comment about the focus needing to be on my health and well-being made me smile. If finding me unfit to hold trade union office without any semblance of due process, treating me according to the most ignorant of discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions, and colluding in setting the police on me, is how UCU focuses on my health and well-being, then I’d rather go without that kind concern for my health.

Disabled people are used to hearing the “we’re concerned about your health and well-being” justification when they’re being discriminated against, disadvantaged or excluded, or otherwise treated in a way that non-disabled people are not. In a similar way women were previously (and sometimes still) excluded from jobs in engineering or hazardous (but exciting and high-paying) professions. For a long time women were prevented from working in parts of the chemical and nuclear industries because of “concern” that chemicals or radiation could harm any potential children they have.

Excluding someone from elected office in a trade union out of “concern” for their health and well-being when one has made zero attempt to ascertain what the person’s actual health condition is, is discriminatory. A quarter of our members in UCU have mental health conditions. A core principle – possibly the core principle – of trade unionism is “nothing about us without us”. People like us should be represented by people like us: people with mental-health conditions should be fully able to participate in the union and its leadership structures.

grave concerns re fitness to hold office

This is a truly extraordinary email. Remember, I was Wales Vice Chair. And yet my colleagues are speaking about me as if I’m a criminal. The extent to which they have allowed their ignorant prejudices of mental health to “otherise” me is a case-study in discriminatory practice.

At no point does it occur to anyone to speak to me. The way UCU has handled this reminds me of an incident many years ago under the Apartheid Regime in South Africa, when the government set up a commission to look into tightening the law on abortion (there was concern that too many white babies were being aborted). Responding to criticism that there was not a single woman on this commission, the government’s response was, “If we appointed a commission to review criminal sentencing, we wouldn’t appoint criminals to it.”

Whenever there is any concern about a disabled-person’s condition, the person best-placed to give input on the subject is the disabled person themselves. Whenever a disabled-person’s condition is discussed (and there are very few legitimate reasons why it should be in a trade-union context), the disabled person in question must ALWAYS be involved in the discussion. We have lived with our conditions for many years and are generally quite adept at living life, being university lecturers, organising anti-cuts campaigns, and holding trade union office.

I wish to submit the final paragraph of the email above for the Most Hilarious Patronising Comment About A Disabled Person Prize 2013.

My mental health has been widely discussed among my union colleagues and in the wider trade union movement in Wales. At no point has anyone sought to ask me to give input into these discussions. So it might be useful if I briefly summarise my condition.

I have clinical depression and adult ADHD. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (manic depression) on the basis of a single manic episode 20 years ago, but have not had one since. I have had these conditions all my life, and have been on medication for these conditions most of my life. Despite these conditions I have been able to work in high-pressure jobs, and work to a very high standard of professionalism. Until recently (3 years ago) I never had to take time off work as a result of these conditions. Three years ago a series of extremely stressful traumatic life events triggered an episode of severe clinical depression from which I am slowly recovering.

Until I decided to “come out” as someone with a mental-health condition a couple of years ago, no-one in my professional or social life guessed that I have a mental-health condition, or that I’ve been taking medication every day for all my adult life for clinical depression and ADHD. Had I not chosen to be open about my mental health, most people would still not guess that I have a mental health condition. However, being open about my condition has resulted in many people in the trade union movement interpreting everything I do or say as a manifestation of mental ill-health. People choose to see the label, not the person.

I am informed that many people in the trade union movement describe me as “mentally unstable”, and indeed too “mentally unstable” to hold elected trade union office, or to be involved in campaigning against the ConDem cuts, or to organise a disabled-people’s movement against the Welfare reforms.

Thing is, I am not mentally unstable. I’ll say that again, because I know that folks will have difficulty grasping this: I’m not mentally unstable.

My condition is in fact very stable, and I can say this objectively because this has been repeatedly confirmed by my psychiatrist. (Given that such a great many people in the trade union movement insist that I am mentally unstable, I naturally worry that this may be true. But unlike my trade union colleagues, I seek an opinion on my medical condition from competent qualified professionals.

Neither am I deluded, psychotic, a fantasist, nor paranoid – all diagnoses that the amateur psychiatrists of the trade union movement have made of me. It is also not true that “my opinions are determined by my mental state”, as asserted by a Unison officer in Cardiff: my capacity for rational thinking and ability to articulate an argument on merit remains unimpaired – and remains unchanged despite what “mental state” those who disagree with my arguments may perceive me to be in on the basis of whatever discriminatory stereotypes of mental ill-health they hold.

Another Unison officer (and Socialist Party branch secretary) recently responded to a view I expressed that he disagreed with by telling me to “Fuck off Liza, you psychotic bitch.” There is nothing in my medical history that remotely hints that I am psychotic.

Far more damaging than these clear-cut cases of disability hate speech has been the “When Liza’s well, she’s a brilliant campaigner/ organiser/ trade-unionist” argument which has done the rounds in Cardiff for several months. Those times when I’ve been diagnosed by assorted members of Cardiff Rancid Left as “not well”, and therefore not only unfit to be involved in campaign organising or hold union office, but also such a serious risk to the safety of other people that the police need to be set on me, have in fact been misdiagnoses of other pathological conditions I suffer from. Pathological conditions which, sadly, unlike my mental health, I am not able to control nearly as well and which are on public display far more frequently than my mental health. Pathological conditions such as Expressing Opinions While Female, Disagreeing With The SWP, Getting Really Angry, Criticising PCS For Not Complying With Its Own Conference Motions Re Working With Disabled-People’s Anti-Cuts Groups, and Being Foreign.

Before I “came out” as someone with a mental health condition, these other pathological opinions tended to be be diagnosed by folks in the trade union movement as PITA – pain in the arse. But it has been extraordinary how quick trade unionists have been to ascribe absolutely everything I do or say to their own stereotypes of deranged unhingedness, when in fact I have simply disagreed with them or they with me.

Interestingly, the most vocal proponent of the “When Liza’s well, she’s a brilliant campaigner/organiser/trade-unionist” argument is a member of the NUJ, which has a clear Code of Conduct and excellent Hacked Off Disability Guide (here) committing their members not to use damaging stereotypes of disabled people and particularly those with mental ill-health. The person concerned also served a prison sentence for armed robbery, so one would have thought he’d have an appreciation of the damage that ignorant and discriminatory stereotypes can do.

apologised on behalf of UCU

I organised a disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Cardiff that held very successful high-profile protests, that drew in many people who had never previously been involved in activism, and which significantly raised the profile of the impact on disabled people of the Welfare reforms. If this is “not behaviour that UCU Wales condones”, then perhaps UCU Wales needs to have a good hard think about what its purpose is.

In the email there is a worry that my “behaviour”, of which the UCU official has “significant experience”, will damage UCU Wales. The “behaviour” referred to is my unfortunate habit of fighting for the interests of the UCU members I represent. When the union fails to safeguard the collective interests of a section of its membership, I fight just as hard on my members’ behalf as when management fail to safeguard their interests. This is in no way a manifestation of mental ill-health. It is simply what good trade unionists do. If this kind of behaviour is problematic (to some, but not my members), then perhaps UCU Wales needs to have a good hard think about what its purpose is.

But no matter how much of a pain some of the union’s officials (but not the members I represent) may find my “behaviour”, nothing in my “behaviour” has ever involved threats of violence against anyone. Not even remotely. This email seeks to conflate my “behaviour” as a trade unionist who makes a Big Fuss when the union fails to safeguard her members’ collective interests with the stereotype of a mentally unhinged violent lunatic who is a threat to public safety.

PCS involving police

The above appears to be an exchange between UCU and PCS officials in which it appears to have been determined that the only possible course of action is to set the police on me. Do they never, at any point, consider whether the allegations against me hold water? Do they never, at any point, consider contacting me?

It seems quite extraordinary that trade union officials with many years of experience can act in this way when the entirety of their evidence against me is an exasperated comment I made in a Facebook thread that perhaps PCS will only begin to take notice of the plight of disabled people (73 of whom a week are dying when PCS stops our benefits) if we all go down the Jobcentre and set fire to ourselves. In the context of the Facebook thread, this was very obviously a rhetorical device and was in no way a threat: it was simply an expression of exasperation after I and other disabled activists had been bombarded on Facebook for two days with accusations (from Trotskyists not in PCS) that by advocating that PCS organise a boycott of implementing the Welfare reforms, we were “dividing the working class” and “distracting PCS from its role of leading the build-up for a general strike”.

If that Facebook comment had been made by someone without a mental health condition, there is no way union officials in PCS or UCU would have taken it as a credible threat or a matter for the police. But because I have a mental health condition, it is obvious that I’m a danger to the public.

Yes, I should not have allowed the Trotskyists to wind me up. But I’m not the first trade unionist who’s lost their temper in an argument with Trotskyists, and I won’t be the last. If the police were to be set on every trade unionist who says something unfortunate out of frustration with Trotskyists, then the Metropolitan Police would be spending an awful lot of time at the home of the UCU General Secretary.

officers of council believe she has

At around the time this email was sent (10th January) was the deadline for nominations for UCU Wales Council officers. I had always intended to stand for re-election as Vice Chair, so I was really puzzled and profoundly concerned that none of my Wales Council colleagues was prepared to support my nomination. At the time I was completely unaware of the ludicrous allegations against me, or that my fellow officers of Wales Council believed I had brought the union into disrepute and that I was unfit to hold union office.

This is another reason it is really important to involve disabled people in discussions concerning them: it gives us a sporting chance at re-election for trade union office. My response to my Wales Council colleagues not being prepared to support my nomination was an excess of self-examination and self-doubt as to my abilities as a trade union officer. Had I known that my colleagues’ reasons for not supporting my nomination for re-election was nothing to do with any failings on my part as a trade unionist and entirely due to their ignorant, offensive and discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions, it would have been a great relief. I would have known then to seek nominations from folks in UCU Wales whose attitudes toward people with mental health conditions is less antediluvian.

GS TUC comment

This email, which appears to be from UCU’s General Secretary Sally Hunt, refers to someone at TUC Executive (presumably Mark Serwotka) saying that PCS members were being threatened. She assumes this is a reference to me. It is not. I did not, and would not, ever threaten PCS members (or anyone else) with physical harm, or with setting myself alight. One would have thought that trade unionists and colleagues who work with me would know this.

keep it quiet

This appears to be an email from the UCU Wales President. What he describes as “clearly being a major issue” only became a major issue because of my colleagues and fellow trade-unionists’ assumption that because I have depression, a very common mental health condition, I am also a risk to the safety of others. That such levels of ignorance of mental-health conditions, and such prejudiced assumptions of those of us with mental-health conditions, exists among the leadership of a trade union whose members have a very high incidence of mental ill-health, is quite extraordinary. UCU members would rightly question whether such a leadership is able to safeguard their interests.

Statistically, having a mental-health condition does not make one any more likely to be violent or a risk to others than the general population. This is true even for those conditions which can present with violence. People with depression are certainly not a risk of violence.

Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination: the discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002). Trade unionists should not be perpetuating these damaging stereotypes, let alone applying them to their trade union colleagues.

Recommendations

In summary, how should trade unionists (and members of the wider Left, for example in anti-cuts movements) deal with their colleagues with mental-health conditions if a situation arises that they think is related to the colleague’s health condition?

1. DON’T PANIC! And in particular, don’t call the police. It is horrendously unpleasant to be on the receiving end of an aggressive midnight visit from the police.

2. Before doing anything else, speak to the colleague with the mental health condition. They are better placed than anyone to give input about their disability. And it may well turn out that what was initially mistaken to be a manifestation of unhinged deranged lunacy may not be a manifestation of mental ill-health at all (it might, for example, be the expressing of an entirely legitimate view that you disagree with).

3. Cut out the amateur psychiatry. You would not make diagnoses on the basis of zero evidence of someone’s fitness to hold elected office if they had cancer, diabetes, or were Deaf. Do not assume that a person is “very ill”, or “mentally unstable”, or “is a brilliant trade unionist/ campaigner/ organiser when she is well”, just because some twit from the local anti-cuts movement, trades council or the SWP pronounces it so. When you hear such “diagnoses” being imparted about your colleague, ask yourself, from where did the twit uttering the diagnosis get the information? From a psychiatrist who clinically assessed your colleague and made a professional medical diagnosis? Or is it more likely to be an ignorant, prejudiced comment based on discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions?

4. Likewise, terms such as “deluded”, “fantasist”, “paranoid”, “unstable”, “unbalanced”, etc, are medical diagnoses, and should not be used by trade unionists unless they are an actual medical diagnosis (and even then, there would be few legitimate reasons why such terms would be used.

5. Terms such as those in point 4 above should never be used to counter arguments with colleagues with mental-health conditions. If you disagree with your colleague, or are of the strong opinion that she is talking out of her arse, then say “I disagree”, or “You’re wrong”, or “Your argument is bollocks”, and explain why. Do not say “you’re deluded”, or “you’re paranoid”, or “Your views are determined by your mental state”. The latter are medical diagnoses, which you are not qualified to make, and which have no place in robust debate. Even if the person you’re arguing with is deluded, or paranoid, or their views are determined by their mental state, you should still engage with their argument on its merits: play the ball, not the player.

6. If you are ever in doubt as to how to deal with a colleague with a mental-health condition, conduct the following thought-experiment: say to yourself, “let’s imagine, hypothetically, that this person does not have a mental-health condition. How would I deal with the situation then?”

7. If recommendation 6 above doesn’t work and you are really, really flummoxed as to how to deal with a colleague who has a mental-health condition, ask yourself, “how would I prefer to be dealt with, if I were on the receiving end of the treatment/attitudes/assumptions that I’m about to apply to my colleague.”

8. And finally, always remember,

Some trade unionists have mental health conditions. Get over it.

If any UCU member, officer, or official, (in particular those who have written the emails featured in this blogpost), would like to make a formal complaint against me for publishing these emails or for the assertions I make here, the Procedure for the regulation of the conduct of members can be found in the members’ area of the UCU website. You will need to make a case that I am in breach of the union’s Rules 13.1/6.1/6.1.1.

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7 thoughts on “Trade union colleague has a mental-health condition? DON’T PANIC! Some useful guidelines on how to cope.

  1. brummiesue

    Hi Liza, I hope this will trigger a genuine debate among TU activists. I’m just trying to put myself into the position of a trade union official receiving a complaint about an activist who allegedly has a mental health condition and has allegedly threatened fellow trade unionists. What would I do? Well yes, I hope I would contact the person concerned and ask them for their account, which didn’t happen in your case. Then, suppose the person states that none of the allegations are true. What to do then? I guess the TU officers who have been put in the position of handling the complaint should go back to the complainant(s) and ask for actual evidence. That didn’t happen in your case either, it seems.
    You refer to the lack of any proper medical evidence about the real nature of your condition(s). But of course such medical data is quite rightly confidential and UCU officials have no right to see it. What should they do if the person says the allegations are untrue but there DOES appear to be some evidence supporting the allegations, and the person being accused refuses to disclose any medical evidence – which they are well within their rights to do?

    Reply
  2. Kate Blair

    I read your blog with interest as I am a union steward with depression and anxiety who still manged until recently to hold down a stressful professional job in local government. I have felt the amateur psychiatric comments etc you talk about, the word ‘felt’ was used deliberately. I felt belittled, dismissed, degraded and more isolated.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: A proposal to postpone the next meeting of UCU’s Commission on Trade Union Democracy until the Rhubarb Season | Loony Lefty

  4. Stephen Rowley

    It sounds like they were just looking to get rid of you lizze and your disability provided a excuse. I have found a reluctance in the student union organization to rock the political boat.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: PCS is a fabulous, magnificent trade union. But you’ve just earned yourselves 10/10 in the FAIL department. | Loony Lefty

  6. loonynurse

    Liza,
    As an occupational health nurse I believe you have been discriminated against due to perceived mental health disability. Suggesting that you would set light to yourself and harm others, treating you as if you did have the underlying disability would certainly fall under the Equality act 2010, discrimination due to perceived disability, which applies even if the perpetrators knew you did not have the protected characteristic’s.
    The UK has just signed up to Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, this teamed with UK Equality Act and http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml
    shows you how strong the anti discrimination laws are, however fighting for your rights under these acts and conventions can be tough going in the UK.

    The Union has failed to protect you from harassment?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2005/mar/29/publicsectorcareers.workplacestress
    I am not a lawyer but i feel you could bring a case against them?? although It can be very very stressful and you need to be so strong. You have to bring the case to civil court within 2 years.

    The royal college of nursing has in their rules:
    “the Council Members reasonably believe he or she is suffering from mental disorder and is incapable of acting and the Council then resolves that he or she be removed from office;”

    I only just discovered this rule and I am about to complain in the strongest terms to the RCN and anyone else who will listen:)

    You are not alone Liza, many nurses have made the mistake of speaking out about poor care and found themselves accused of having underlying mental health issues. with enough pressure ( ie suspension) mental health issues generally manifest in the form of anxiety and distress followed by depression at times.

    Remember Karma is a B****, they will not get away with it:)

    Loony nurse:)

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Cardiff disabled people need you – yes, YOU! – to visit the final day of their Vigil to ATOS victims today | DAN Cymru – Disabled Activists Network Wales

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