Something I hear a lot from people who complain about others being on benefits is that they have no problem with people who truly can’t work getting them, it’s all those other people they’re pissed off about.

The trouble is, they imagine they are a good judge of who really can’t work.

What I’d like to say to these people is this. Every time you attack benefits, every time you call for them to be cut, every time you sit in the pub and have a rant about how benefits claimants are stealing from you, you perpetuate the myth that lots of people on incapacity benefit could work if they really wanted to and you’re increasing the stigma that makes it even harder for us to live our lives.

I’ve had people I know do this to my face. “Oh, but I don’t mean you“, they say when I speak up. Well, that’s the nice ones, I know very well that some of them do mean me because they have no idea about mental illness, no idea about depression, and generally no idea about other people’s lives. But even if they don’t mean me, they still mean some other person they don’t know, who they look at and think doesn’t look disabled so must be a cheat.

A friend with schizophrenia does voluntary work in a charity shop, and every week another volunteer, a retired man, says to him “haven’t you found a job yet?”, swiftly turning something that should be helping boost his sense of self into something that destroys it. Robin wrote eloquently about how the stigma of being on benefits prevents recovery from depression, and I see and experience that all the time – even from mental health workers.

There are many barriers to employment for people on benefits, and increasing people’s misery and lack of self-esteem by haranguing them for not having a job does nothing to reduce any of them. People on incapacity have been assessed by doctors and continue to be assessed (how often varies according to the severity of the disability – for someone with suicidal depression for instance, it’s about once every three years).

Politicians on both sides, pompous newspaper columnists working for tax-avoiding companies, bloggers, tweeters, and guys down the pub, all harp on about cutting benefits with little to say about how we can really get people out of poverty, apparently blind to the fact that cuts in benefits will only make poverty even worse. They might occasionally say “but I don’t mean you“, but in reality it’s exactly people like me who schemes to cut benefits end up hurting.

Two links for today:

Inequality based on disability is widespread, according to research.

The survey identifies a stark pay gap between disabled and non-disabled staff – the non-disabled being more than three times more likely to earn £80,000 or above – as well as far less access to the mentoring and support that many disabled people crave. In addition, while staff with mental-health conditions are far less likely to be top earners or board directors than those with more visible, physical impairments, they are also significantly less willing to disclose details of their condition for fear of being stereotyped or sidelined.

Interesting piece, though more about people towards the top of the career ladder than those struggling to get by on benefits.

And, Depression as deadly as smoking… “A study by researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London has found that depression is as much of a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

Also many thanks to cdaae for tweeting our posts, and to Mark Brown, who said of us “On the ground experience becomes interesting and combative citizen journalism”. All your links and comments are very much appreciated!

Violet writes below about how the stress of work can make depression worse, and I thought I should back that up with a few figures and examples.

For instance:

Just ask France Telecom. Since the beginning of 2008, 24 employees at the company have committed suicide and an additional 13 have attempted suicide. Many of these victims left suicide notes implying the company’s working environment was a key factor in their decisions — one even explicitly cited “overwork, stress, absence of training and the total disorganization in the company.” Some of the attempts occurred on France Telecom premises.

Working hours in the UK have increased steadily since the 1970s, and with them working stress.

In January 2004, a marketing director at Prudential was reported as saying: “Our research shows that an alarming number of people appear to be unhappy in their employment and unfulfilled by their work”. BBC News has quoted the International Stress Management Association saying: “Each year we conduct research into stress and each year the figure just keeps on getting worse.”

According to UN figures, approximately two million workers die annually due to occupational injuries and illnesses. This is more than double the figure for deaths from warfare. Work kills more people than alcohol and drugs together.

Less than a month after attacking the depressed and stressed for whining instead of working, the Daily Express has reported that work-related mental illness leaves “employers with a total bill for lost productivity of £28.3 billion a year”. Even the measures which concentrate purely on the economic impact on depression for businesses and ignore the suffering of the individuals admit workplace stress and misery a major problem.

This may all sound like I’m saying work sucks and you’d be a sucker to do it, the kind of attitude often attributed to the ‘benefits culture’.

That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that any policy that tries to get people off benefits by focusing purely on making them apply for jobs, and ignores the real harm the work culture can do, does considerably more harm than it does good.

PS: On LiveJournal? You can now follow our syndicated feed through your friends page.

Now I would like to add some more to my post about a day in the life of depression (and thank you for the comments!).

Not every day is like that. I tried to describe one that was a balance between the absolute worst times, the times I spend all day in bed, all day either unconscious or wishing to die, the times I can’t believe in any future that isn’t hell on earth; and the times I feel relatively okay for a few weeks, the times when I can get engaged with something and feel lighter.

Yes, there are times when I feel energized, passionate about something, more positive. I try to get everything out of those moments that I can, because I know I can achieve a lot when I’m in that kind of a flow state. Also, because I know from experience that they’re not going to last. Some outside stress will find its way in, panic me, and down I’ll go.

I live in a Catch 22 situation on benefits, because in theory not having to work should allow me the time and space to get better, and sometimes it does. The constant stress of not having enough money often cuts in to that of course, and so does the constant pressure to be working towards getting a job, not because I’m a lazy scrounger but because in my long experience of myself and my struggle with depression, I’ve found that when I’ve started part-time work there’s been an initial high of “I can do it!” that after a few months turns into a fearful spiral of worsening depression, until I’m back in the pit of suicidal feelings and utter despair.

I can be on benefits and go between times of relative wellness and times of fear and depression, or I can do part-time work (which isn’t nearly enough to live on), and be suicidal and end up hospitalized. What good does that do me, or the taxpayer who funds the NHS?

The trap of the “benefits culture” we so often hear about should be seen as equally a trap of the work culture. At the moment I do some voluntary work, and that means that when I hit a slump I can phone them and say I won’t be in for a couple of weeks, and that’s okay. Can you find me an employer who’d be okay with that? Since it’s only one day a week sometimes I can drag myself in even when I’m not feeling at all good, because it’s low pressure, it’s doing something I feel is worthwhile, and the other people are open and friendly and share some of my views and interests. I feel I can at least partially be myself, and I feel appreciated for who I am.

Contrast that with the average modern work place. To start with I couldn’t get any very great job, I’ve been out of work too long and lack any great formal qualifications. The kind of jobs the employment people have suggested for me have all been service industry, working in shops, on my feet all day and dealing with people. These set off all my major stresses, all my trigger points for depression, and believe me I’ve had years of therapy figuring out what those are. I’ve tried these jobs, and it has never taken me more than a few weeks to become severely suicidal.

What, aside from the degree of social phobia I have, is the problem with them? They are the opposite of my voluntary work. They are inflexible, high pressure, I am surrounded by people I have little in common with, I cannot remotely be myself, I have to put all my energy in to maintaining a false “cheerful” face, and the only way I can get through them even for a day is to completely deaden myself. Then there is the stigma of depression or mental health problems, and of having been on benefits in the first place. People notice you’re different and make cracks that constantly remind you how poorly you fit in. Managers hassle you to smile more. An ill-tempered customer can crash your self-esteem for a week.

My first suicide attempt came after 3 weeks being a waitress in a hotel restaurant. My boyfriend stabbed himself after 4 months working in a pub. My best friend’s brother committed suicide not long after being fired from a cart collecting position with a supermarket for looking too glum.

I’m not saying our jobs caused these things. We all had (and have) many issues contributing to our states of mind. Our working experiences just reinforced our feelings that things were hopeless, that life wasn’t going to and could never get any better, that the pain we were in from whatever variety of causes simply couldn’t be borne. It told us we were always going to be misfits, we’d never be able to support ourselves, and no one really wanted us anyway. It was the worst thing possible for our sense of self-esteem.

Of course work doesn’t do this to everyone. If you can find work that you feel is rewarding, if you get on with your colleagues, if people are accepting of your limitations, if you can work enough hours to make enough money to survive, work may boost your self-esteem and give you a reason to get up in the morning, rather than make you dread it even more. Whether you can find such work depends on what’s available in your area, and also on your personality, your skills and abilities, and what you find worthwhile.

It’s often said that creative people are more prone to depression. I wonder if that’s partly because, in today’s world, it’s much harder for us to find fulfilling employment unless we also have good business skills, or the energy and drive to get on a higher rung of the ladder in a creative career. Our world also rewards extroversion, and depression is a very introverted kind of problem.

If you’re well paid and can afford to take a sabbatical, if you’re far up enough in a stable career with a good company, you may be able to take time off or be given the leeway you need to recover. If, on the other hand, your mental health problems strike early, disrupting your education and your chance at even starting a career, you face a very different picture. Poverty and hostility do not help anyone’s mental health.

So there is my Catch 22. If I get better, I will be forced into a job that will make me a hell of a lot worse again. If society or the government wants to get me out of the “benefits culture” they should start making more workplaces less hostile towards people with disabilities, in my case particularly towards mental illness. They need to offer more than depressing low-wage work, not because we think we’re too good for certain jobs but because forcing us into jobs that we cannot cope with just makes us ill again, and puts us back on benefits (if it doesn’t cause us to kill ourselves first).

I don’t think this culture change is ever going to happen while we have constant headlines generated by politicians and well-fed, second-home-owning columnists telling everyone that people on incapacity benefits are mostly liars and scroungers who “moan” about stress and depression. These politicians, and their pals in the tabloid and right-wing press, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Hello, I’m Violet, I’m on income support for incapacity for long term depression, and I’d like to invite you to spend a day being me.

I wake up. My brain instantly regards this as a bad move, and does its best to put it off for as long as possible, hibernation being an instinctive self-defense mechanism against depression. Unfortunately it’s counterproductive so eventually I manage to make myself get up.

Coffee. My eyes glaze over to avoid the horror of the piles of dishes waiting to be washed, and I clean a mug as fast as possible before the panic sets in. Coffee in hand I escape to the computer and check my email. I spend some time connecting with friends and the world, and then I make a mental list of the things I absolutely have to do today because they cannot be avoided any longer, like buying some food for the next few days.

Town is a 20 minute walk away. Exercise is good, when I am up to it, but 40 minutes of walking (half with heavy shopping bags) and the time spent dealing with other people is not good for my thought processes. Sometimes I’ve been able to drive into town, but it’s almost impossible to afford to keep a car running on nothing but income support.

I prefer to go to small shops, and exchange some friendly words with local shopkeepers who know my face, but sometimes I can’t avoid the supermarket, and the crush of “normal” people inevitably sends the negative feelings spiraling out of control. I feel different, isolated, cut off, tearful, I have to concentrate on my breathing to keep down the panic.

I escape home. If I’ve walked, by now I’m exhausted for the day. Even if I’ve driven the emotional expenditure often calls for a crash to recover for the afternoon. I unplug the phone, because it’s awful jangling noise makes me want to bury myself in a hole for the next ten years, and I can’t cope with any more people right now. I remember I’ve got a pile of unopened bills to deal with. I panic about the cost of heating over the winter. I realize I still have to face the dishes, oh, and I need to put some laundry on if I’m going to have any clean underwear. I want to crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my head but if I fall asleep now I’ll have dreadful nightmares due to side effects of my medication. Half the time I fall asleep anyway. The other half, I calm myself by telling myself not to worry, if it ever gets too bad it’s never too late for suicide. (Out of proportion? Yes, that’s what depression does to you.)

Evening creeps over the world. I have probably only eaten a couple of pieces of toast, so it’s time to put some food together, which involves tackling some washing up, and its attendant feelings of uselessness, worthlessness, and self-hatred. I am pathetic. Any normal person does not get so overwhelmed by simple housework that they live on toast for a week. I’m so pathetic I should just stab myself in the throat and get it all over with. Fuck, it’s not as if the powers that be want me to stay alive. Just die already, you stupid whining fool. Save us all the effort of listening to your pointless, self-pitying blabber.

Then I might cheer myself up by researching suicide methods on the internet, and working out which is the most accessible and least painful. I’ll also connect with friends and support forums, and maybe I’ll feel a bit better, maybe I won’t. When I’m seriously suicidal I become so weak I can barely move, my limbs feel full of lead, I’m incapable of taking any action on my suicidal thoughts. That is undoubtably why I’m still alive.

Some days are better than others. Maybe I made a nice meal full of fresh vegetables and delicious spices earlier. Maybe I remembered to plug the phone back in and had a nice chat with a friend. Perhaps I watched a movie with my boyfriend. When I’m in an “up” phase I do some voluntary work, and spend time supporting other people on depression forums.

On the other hand, some days are worse. The oven breaks down and how am I possibly going to afford to replace it? I get a letter from the benefits people and have to spend all day dwelling on my miserable state and writing it all down and filling in all the same boxes as last year and feel like I don’t fit into a box and people are chopping my limbs off in order to force me in to one. Perhaps I’ve had such a shit week I can’t get out of bed and get up at 5 pm and half watch random crap on BBC iPlayer and fantasize about cutting myself to make the hours go by.

Inevitably the day ends with me going to bed and lying awake tossing and turning for a couple of hours waiting for my brain to just shut the fuck up with all its bullshit already and let me sink into the world of my dreams for the best hours of my life, even when the meds mean they’re mostly nightmares.

Welcome to a day in my life. I hope you enjoyed your stay.

The Daily Express, which apparently doesn’t pay a good enough wage to attract a capable proofreader for its headlines, launches one of its typical attacks on people on incapacity benefits with Leo McKinstry’s offensive and insulting claim that:

It is telling that more than1.1million incapacity claimants are not suffering from any physical disability at all, but get their handouts by moaning about problems like “stress” and “depression”.

Suicide is the second most common cause of death in young people after accidental death. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 70 per cent of recorded suicides are by people experiencing depression. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90% who those who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, most often depression or bipolar disorder. A Samaritans survey found that jobs are the single biggest cause of stress – and that the link between work and suicide is likely to be underestimated.

It’s almost comical to see papers like the Express accuse people of “moaning” about stress, because their health pages are nearly always full of reports about the terrible stress of the workplace. They’re right there – the British Medical Journal has reported that people with stressful jobs are twice as likely to die from heart disease, and a government report found people who work over 48 hours per week have double the risk of heart disease.

So perhaps they’re just jealous, and wish they could live on seventy quid a week instead of being paid whatever they get to write columns for the press. Leo McKinstry thinks we have an “easy lifetime on the dole”, which just shows what an ignorant bigot he is.

No one suffering from mental illness has an “easy lifetime”. We face constant struggle in a way that Mr McKinstry is incapable of imagining. It is not a matter of “moral fibre”, it is a matter of brain chemistry (and social prejudice and stigma). Everyone gets stressed at times, but for someone with PTSD for instance that can mean being unable to leave your home, unable to walk down the street, unable to do basic tasks without having flashbacks. The chemistry of PTSD is well researched and people cannot control a dramatically increased cortisol response by having a stiff upper lip.

As the Secret Life of a Manic Depressive puts it, “I am sick of this bullshit being published. Swap places with someone incapacitated by schizophrenia for a week, you fucking idiots.”

Later today I’ll be adding a new contributer to the blog, who’ll be writing more about life with depression. For now I’ll leave you with the tidbit that the NHS watchdog has warned that “stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace is costing employers billions of pounds”. So apparently even if we had jobs, we’d be costing the economy money. If the economy is all you care about, I guess that’s more important than our personal suffering.

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.