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?

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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.

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.