As I said in the barriers to employment post, being unable to work isn’t just about whether you’re able to perform certain tasks. One area I didn’t really get in to, though, was the extent to which people’s attitudes towards people on benefits can make life even harder for us.

I hope this reader contribution from Robin, in South East England, will make that point for me.

Robin writes:

I suffer from depression after a series of traumatic and distressing events and losses. I would like to be able to spend time grieving, dealing with the past. I am still on a waiting list to find psychotherapy after ten years of trying to get help – the psychiatrist I was sent to initially said she could not help as I do not have a mental illness, but a natural reaction to horrific events, so I have been bouncing about different waiting lists for therapy since, in the meantime on antidepressants and regular GP visits. For the first two years I could not go out alone: I would cry, shake and sometimes breakdown screaming in pain and terror, and would need to be helped home again. I could not do the shopping: I could no longer count the money in my hand, or remember what I was buying. People would approach me in the street to tell me off for looking unhappy: “what could a young girl like you possibly have to look so miserable about? I’ll show you what’s miserable!”

The reaction and comments from other people have been by far the biggest barrier to recovery. Apart from frightening remarks from random strangers in the street, I have been upset by people’s attitudes, ranging from teasing through taunting to threatening. I don’t know if it is because people who have not suffered in life are scared when they see someone else’s suffering – perhaps it is a defensive reaction – or whether it is human nature to “kick people when they’re down;” I think a bit of both. But what has been very clear is that resentment plays a huge part: resentment that I do not have to work because I receive income support.

My partner, who was also unable to work as we were nursing his sick father, had a small sum of money inherited from his grandmother which saw him through a few years. He did not receive any of the taunts or threats I did. Because he did not have rent to pay, as he was able to stay at someone’s house, he was able to work one day a week, so was able to avoid being labelled “benefit scum.” I was not able to try working one day a week even once I became accustomed to venturing out alone, as my benefits would have been stopped and my rent unpaid. I lived in terror of having my small amount of money taken away and having to sleep on the streets. I had nowhere to go if this happened, and the stress and worry was a constant cause of sleepless nights as well as preventing me from being able to gain work experience of any kind. The benefits system penalises people who would like to gain work experience or find out what work they could manage, as an attempt to work or part time work is seen as a reason to take away benefits.

Most of my family are not supportive. I had cousins come to stay with me who, every day on returning from work, would repeat the same “joke” about how they had worked to pay for my benefits with their taxes. To these young, carefree people, who had never lifted a finger for anyone in their lives, never had to work to survive (yes they had jobs in hotel bars, which they saw as a bit of fun in between travelling and partying, but they had wealthy parents who they knew would help them out if anything went wrong and rooms back home to go to if needed), saw my life spent dealing with abuse, bereavements, nursing someone close to me until he died, all the while struggling to complete courses to get qualifications, as something at best to joke about, at worst as an example as a leech scrounging off society. I was told by an aunt who did not even want to listen to my experiences that everybody had experienced the same, but was stronger than I was (it later transpired she meant everyone knew someone who had died – not “the same” as horrific, sudden loss of the person closest to you, or the loss of someone you have nursed for four years). I was told by my sister-in-law that I was “faking” because she had seen people who had had bereavements and they were happy. I was told by another cousin that it was actually very funny to imagine me being hit as a child and that I probably deserved it, and by another that my whole family despised me because I was so pathetic and did not work. None of these comments, needless to say, helped me on a path to recovery. In fact after each I was often left alone, swaying to and fro, screaming and trying to cut my wrists, too scared to go outside for weeks, scared of the world of people who despised me, who found my suffering amusing. I began to think they must be right: that I deserved everything I got, that I was worthless, someone it was amusing to hurt, that my feelings didn’t count and that my experiences were simply commonplace and I was a “pathetic” wreck.

I have since visited psychotherapists who have told me that this is not so, that I had a bad childhood and suffered unusually traumatic bereavements. But it is hard to shake off the feelings of worthlessness and even as I write this I am anxious that readers will be laughing scornfully and telling me to pull myself together.

Every time someone tells someone on sickness benefits that they are scrounging, or that they are not contributing to society, their self-confidence – already low from the humiliation of the benefits system and the misery of poverty as well as their experiences and suffering from their actual condition that got them there in the first place – slips further beyond the point of retrieval, until they are in danger of being frightened to attempt to partake in the world any more, yet alone go out and get a job.