Welcome coverage from The Guardian today: Benefits conundrum fuels the cash-in-hand economy “Welfare reform should recognise that harnessing people's desire to work is more effective than the threat of jail or poverty"

Living on benefits is tough. Tony McNulty, former employment minister, admitted to Radio 5 Live earlier this year that he couldn’t survive on the money his department gives out to people. The minimum income standards for Britain estimates that a person needs £158 a week in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society. A single adult receives £60.50

As the article points out, most benefit fraud is committed by people who are trying to earn that extra £100 they need to cover their basic needs. As Oxfam asked, could YOU live on £60 a week? (People on disability benefits get a little more, almost £90 a week, but that’s still a far cry from £158 and current government reforms have made it ridiculously difficult for people with mental illness or chronic fatigue to qualify.)

Oxfam also points out how the system penalizes people with mental health problems:

It is never unpopular for politicians to say they will be tough on people on benefits; but in our experience, people on benefits are often not lazy and milking the system, but claiming because they are in genuine need. By being tougher these people, some of the 40% of those on incapacity benefits because of mental health problems will fall through the cracks as their illnesses are less easy to prove.

The Labour government’s ESA “work capability test” focuses on physical abilities like reaching and bending. However it ignores questions about energy, stamina, illness, or mental state, making it far more difficult for people with mental health problems or illnesses like ME to get enough points to pass. The people failing this test aren’t faking an illness, they have an illness which the test does not even attempt to measure. Disability organizations say the ESA tests penalize many who are genuinely ill.

In other news, last night the Mind Mental Health awards celebrated positive contributions from the media on breaking the stigma about mental illness – congratulations to all the winners! Former Labour party Director of Communications and Press Secretary Alastair Campbell was amongst them, for broadcasting his own personal story of mental illness. Wonder if he’d care to broaden the scope of his admirable work with mental health charities, and stand up for the people being harmed by Labour’s Employment Support Allowance tests?

Advertisements

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.

“Fury at escape of schizo killer!” blares The Sun, showing their usual degree of sensitivity and caring towards people with mental health problems.

I think it’s best to quote Time to Change and Rethink’s words on this. “Whilst this is a news story and The Sun can legitimately report the event and the comments of those involved Rethink does not think using the word schizo is acceptable.”

The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice, point 12 i) states; The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability. However, they do not seem to think that using the derogatory term “schizo” to refer to schizophrenia is “prejudicial or pejorative”.

Rethink suggests we let the PCC and The Sun know what we think about this, and makes the following points.

• Whilst I understand that The Sun serves to inform readers of news events using the word schizo in the headline is unacceptable. It does nothing to add to the information and simply reduces a complex condition to a derogatory taunt

• There are over 600 thousand people with schizophrenia in the UK, the vast majority are law-abiding citizens. Using the word schizo in the headline only serves to increase the fear and prejudice that exists towards people with schizophrenia and their families

• I do not accept that “schizo” is an acceptable shortening of schizophrenia or schizophrenic, these are medical terms whilst “schizo” is nothing more than an ugly taunt

• It would not be acceptable to shorten lesbian to “lesbo” or refer to gay men as “homos”, nor would it be acceptable to refer to quadriplegics as “cripples”.

Please see their post for addresses to write to and further tips.

This has nothing to do with benefits, but it’s about the way the media constantly reinforces damaging stereotypes about the mentally ill. The Press Complaints Commission seems to think that “schizo” is acceptable language, but charities and professionals who work with people with mental illness, and of course those with the conditions themselves, strongly disagree.

Schizophrenia is a serious condition, and a nightmare to suffer from. Shame on the PCC for letting the tabloids get away with making the stigma and prejudice about it even worse.

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.

The tabloid press likes to tell us that “experts” say most people on incapacity benefits are making it up, but never actually quote any evidence for this.

Amazingly enough, they completely fail to print headlines about a real, actual expert’s testimony that hundreds of claimants are in fact unjustly imprisoned every year because overpayment amounts are being ‘wildly exaggerated’ by the DWP, as welfare benefits expert witness Neil Bateman has told MPs. In one case he assisted with, a woman prosecuted for a £47,000 overpayment had in reality under-claimed benefits.

According to Bateman, criminal judges and defending solicitors do not understand benefits law and it is very rare for a welfare rights specialist to be involved in defending claimants. As a result, the DWP get away with massively inflating the amount of benefit a claimant has been overpaid. Where this is more than £20,000 a prison sentence is the likely outcome, with the DWP getting positive press coverage for exposing the criminal.

Most overpayment cases that Bateman assist with arise not from someone deliberately plotting to defraud the system, but from foolishly failing to declare a change of circumstances.

I suggest you read Neil Bateman’s statement to the Commons select committee for yourself, because you’re not likely to see it in many newspapers.

So why have we been subjected to headlines falsely claiming that as many as 1 in 4 people on incapacity benefits are faking? Where do these figures come from, and who are the “experts” the Daily Mail refers to?

Not experts at all, it turns out, but computer systems based on check boxes and points systems, which fail to accurately assess people’s actual abilities.

The Labour government’s replacement for incapacity benefits, which new applicants now go through, is the employment support allowance (ESA). The “work capability test” for ESA focuses on physical abilities like reaching and bending. However it ignores questions about energy, stamina, illness, or mental state, making it far more difficult for people with mental health problems or illnesses like ME to get enough points to pass.

The people failing this test aren’t faking an illness, they have an illness which the test does not even attempt to measure.

The Guardian is one of the few papers which has reported on these problems.

Although the DWP claims that the WCA assesses whether the person can “carry out an activity reliably and repeatedly the majority of the time”, this is not borne out by the experience of claimants such as Wood and many disability organisations.

Daniel Berry, head of policy and campaigns at the MS Society, says: “MS symptoms can change by the day or even by the hour, so it’s vital that benefits assessors are trained to understand fluctuating conditions. Many people risk losing the financial support they need if they are inaccurately assessed.”

Welfare benefits officers working for the DWP also have grave concerns about the new test. One specialist benefits officer for sick and disabled people, and who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “What I’m seeing at ground level is that there are some people who do want to work but who are so ill and physically disabled that they can’t, and they’re being forced to go into the work-related group of ESA and to jump all these hurdles in order to get the benefit.”

So, under the new tests a large proportion of people with mental health problems and other disabilities face being put on lower level of benefits, or forced into “back to work” groups which may be deeply inappropriate for them and increase their level of stress and depression. Meanwhile, hundreds each year are unjustly imprisoned when they may in fact have been under-claiming benefits!

More people need to know about this. Please, please link, tweet, and post this to Facebook!

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.