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The UK is in the midst of a mental health crisis. The BMA, in a recent statement, made it clear that “the mental health crisis in this country is spiralling out of control and is failing some of the most vulnerable in society, as workforce capacity cannot keep pace with demand”. The COVID pandemic, and now a cost of living crisis, has transformed our communities, leaving many in a state of desperation and hopelessness.
Both work and education have been radically impacted, and in various ways has contributed to the deterioration of peoples’ mental health. In part this is a result of the insistence of the Government and many businesses that everyone must return to the way of life that existed before the pandemic. So the trauma of losing loved ones, the explosion of health problems, and the psychological impact of a destabilising global event are ignored and we’re told to ‘keep calm and carry on’.
However, something has emerged that cannot now be put back into the bottle: our imagination.
A Revolution of the Imagination
The space of imagination was opened as a result of the pandemic. People began to see how work could be something more than drudgery and necessity, that there were opportunities for work to be so much more fulfilling than it had previously been. The imagination opened up the possibility of an alternative, where work and personal fulfilment could be combined. Not only that, but people began to see the importance of being appreciated within your work, that you were not simply a cog in the machine of capital, but a person who had rights, aspirations, dreams, and a desire to not work endlessly for a pittance. And that reality was seen in all its starkness by the way some workers were treated during the pandemic, and the way workers continue to be treated today.
There has been a lot of effort to close down workers’ imagination by transforming the COVID narrative into an individual choice, rather than a community event. The perspective of it as a collective phenomenon has negative effects for the market, so it has to be redrawn as an individual choice. When a person becomes part of a collective, as we see with worker strikes, then the balance of power is shifted. This is no good for market forces. The imagination is about picturing what is possible, and many people are seeing what could be possible as work and income are separated, finding ways to thrive outside of what is expected within a capitalist, market-driven economy.
COVID highlighted how unappreciated workers really are, as some businesses and governments were utterly indifferent to their safety or wellbeing. The ideology of work is to believe that if you work hard enough you can become a valued employee. COVID exposed that ideology to be false, and we are seeing the falsity of the narrative being played out as both public and private sector workers battle for pay rises and better working conditions.
This ideology is also present in our education system, as young people are penalised, their exam results a reflection not on their capacity, but a drive to pretend that COVID never existed. Students find themselves in a position where they are not given the opportunity to begin to process the reality of COVID and its impact upon their lives, and are told, “Get back to work, accept your lot”, even though it is all out of their control. School leaders reported record levels of student absence during exams this year due to mental health challenges. This highlights that everything is not okay. Our young people have not been given the tools nor capacity to deal with their own trauma, or our societal trauma, that permeates the very atmosphere, clinging to us whilst those in power deny its existence.
As people process their trauma they need space and time to understand what has happened to them, and the ways in which the pandemic reframed their lives, and the society they live within. As with all trauma-informed approaches, people need to be heard and valued, given the tools to understand what has happened to them, and find ways towards recovery. To demand that students and workers get on with their lives as though the pandemic never happened is a form of gaslighting.
The pandemic changed everything, and people are now beginning to see, perhaps for the first time, that their value is far more than their productivity, exam results, or ability to work hard.
Yet the ideology that drives this current Government, and big business, is one that refuses to allow that value to be realised. Imagination creates the spaces to discover what else might be possible away from such ideological pursuits.
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It challenges inherited ideas of work and value through diverse education: reading black and brown British history from BAME scholars, refusing to allow the COVID narrative to be whitewashed, hearing the stories of the vulnerable and oppressed, listening to the voice of victims, re-humanising our understanding of work and education.
Imagination is a form of truth, and opens possibilities for the truth to be heard in radically new ways. Let us not allow such truth to be lost beneath the propaganda and cruelty of those for whom the truth is an obstacle to their pursuit of power.