Door open or door closed? Universal Basic Income and reclaiming the minds lost to mental ill health

Throughout my life I have been told, “work hard, pursue your dream, and you will succeed.” It’s advice you will find everywhere from the family dinner table to the Friday afternoon sessions with the geography teacher moonlighting as career adviser to the helpful interviewer at the institution you’ve longed to work at since you were 13 — right before they say they’re not going to hire you.

True, I have had a lot of dreams in my time. I’m what I have learned from TED I am supposed to call a multipotentialite. I start lots of new things and each time I start, I end up very quickly getting very good, and decide “yeah, this. Shiny new this, pleeeeeeease!” But sooner or later I come back to the same simple ambition. To be an academic. More specifically, to be a public intellectual, explaining cool stuff about our remarkable world in order to fill others with wonder and make our future a better place. More specifically still to be all those heroes of my childhood — Carl Sagan, Jonathan Miller, Richard Feynman — and those of the current generation — Bettany Hughes, Mary Beard, Hans Rosling, even the much maligned Brian Cox.

Of course, those dreams have come to nothing. Not because I have no passion — I would not be here, still trying to make the world a better place four decades of disappointment later if that were the case. Not because I have no ability to communicate — I speak whenever and wherever I can in order to share that passion, and my talks seem to go down extremely well (once people have adjusted to my admittedly disquieting habit of drawing references from popular horror cinema). Not because I lack the intellectual ability — I am the current Creative World Thinking Champion, and apparently the only person in the field of Mind Sports to win that and the title of World Intelligence Champion.

No, two very simple things bear the responsibility for stepping in and closing the door on my dream. Mental ill health. And debt. Two things that are, of course, intimately linked like the two voices in Delibes’ Flower Duet or the staff and snake of Asclepius. In my case episodes of mental ill health caused debt, and that debt — and the resultant need to take any job just to survive and pay it off — then blocked the path to avenues that would have led back to academia, which in turn exacerbated the mental ill health and…you get the picture.

Interestingly, it is this insidious pairing that has hauled me back to a position where I see the possibility of the door perhaps opening again, just a little, sufficient for me to lever my way back in — if not to academia then at least to the life of private researcher and public intellectual. For the past 10 years, after a receiving an email in response to a blog post about my mental and financial difficulties, I have had the privilege of working with a series of incredible organizations on the issue of debt and mental ill health. I have worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists on a series of initiatives such as the Money Advice Liaison Group’s (MALG) guidelines for financial service providers to the steering group drafting the Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form and the leaflet Final Demand, which has gone out to every healthcare professional in the UK; I’ve spoken in parliament thanks to Rethink; I’ve written for Mind; and earlier this year I spoke at Barclays HQ in Canary Wharf at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report Seeing Through the Fog. And many more.

What this has given me is two things. The first is a network of wonderful people each working on some of the most important challenges we face. But the second is a very deep, and evidence-based, understanding of the insidious link between debt and mental health. In terms of causation, it is fairly clear that this is a two way street — those with debt problems are more likely to experience mental ill health, and those with mental ill health are more likely to run into financial difficulty.

That is the first, the most widespread, and the most essential issue to tackle. But I didn’t give you paragraphs of my life story purely through egotism. One of the many tragedies of mental ill health is that people are often unable to use a whole panoply of skills in pursuit of a panorama of causes where such deployment is desperately needed. This may be through utter misunderstanding on the part of managers and institutions who think that the way to accommodate those with mental ill health is to give them “easier, less stressful” jobs (which in many cases has the opposite effect, acting instead to take what is left of their dreams and crush them slowly in an inexorable vice of underemployment) rather than making the workplace work for them.

All too often there is a financial component — the person on benefits who has one lucid hour a day, or even a week, who is forced by a cruel and unusual system of suspensions and backpayments and bureaucracy (which takes up more than the number of lucid hours possessed) to donate the fruits of that hour as an undervisible hobbyist, an involuntary participant in a gig economy that will, eventually, crush them too, rather than being paid by an institution that desperately needs them the wage they deserve.

And this is where universal basic income comes in, replacing the likes of Employment Support Allowance (though not, in most models, the extra payments necessary for the disabled to participate in society as fully as the non-disabled) with an unconditional payment for which there would be no forms, and which would not be scaled back if one day you have the ability to contribute to a working group or white paper, a social media campaign or statistical analysis but would enable you to contribute where you wished and were needed and be rewarded as you deserve.

It is probably too late for a universal basic income to save my own dreams — for that I will need to rely on people wanting to listen about how it is not too late to make a massive difference to the lives of others.

And the nature of that difference is at least twofold. A universal, unconditional basic income would in many cases help to break the link between debt and mental ill health. Of course people would still get into debt. And people would still suffer mental ill health. But mental ill health would no longer automatically mean spiralling into debt.

And the breaking of that link does more than alleviate this terrible spiral of misery and poverty. It rescues not just lives but minds. It means those who suffer mental ill health are enabled by being given back time that would otherwise be denied them by bureaucracy and financial desperation; by being given back headspace by not having the constraints of debt and the need to live hand to mouth that suck our intellects dry and force our minds into scarcity mode.

The introduction of a universal basic income would do many things. But one of the most beneficial is that it would open doors to those on whom they had been cruelly closed by mental ill health. And all those open doors would not just enrich the lives of those able to walk through them but would help our world as a whole to meet the urgent challenges it faces in the coming century, for which it will need to marshal — and reward — every willing helper it can find.

Dan Holloway is a journalist, writer, mind sports athlete, and speaker who is the reigning Creative Thinking World Champion. He runs Rogue Interrobang, a creative project committed to helping individuals and organizations to unlock their creativity, and to giving people the skills and the freedom to face the 21st century’s greatest challenges.