This Government do not give a shit about people with mental health conditions, and neither did the last one. Whilst politicians of all parties offer soundbites and fake sympathy the treatment of people with a mental health condition by the benefits system now amounts to little more than psychological torture.
This is not hyperbole. Whilst the medical establishment has stood ildly by, and mental health charities have veered between mild disapproval and outright collaboration, the DWP has lanched an all out war on the most marginalised people in society.
Consider the ‘claimant journey’, to use their language, for someone unable to work due to mental ill health. The first step is to claim Employment Support Allowance, a process which may take months due to a huge backlog of cases. During this period the claimant will be paid the Assessment Rate, the same amount as mainstream unemployment benefits, and a pittance at currently £72.40 a week.
Finally a dreaded brown envelope will drop through the door from the DWP – an invitation to have your mental health assessed by the notorious Atos. At this assessment you may be found fit for work, fit for some work, or possibly placed in the Support Group. What this means is that you might suddenly have your income – your only income – stopped. The stress this places on people who are desperately in need of stability and consistency can be unbearable. Is it any wonder that the number of suicides linked to this callous regime grows ever higher?
We know from the number of successful appeals that many of these assessments are wrong. Equally importantly, these assessments have been ruled discriminatory towards those with a mental health condition in the courts. It will not be a psychologist and is even unlikely to be a mental health trained nurse who carries out the assessment – it could be a physiotherapist or paramedic, and they will use a crude computer based test to come to their decision. This decision will be endorsed by a DWP Decision Maker, who will not be a trained mental health worker either and who will never have met you.
If you are placed in the Support Group you will be left alone, for a while. But you can and will be re-assessed at some point in the future. When that will be is anyone’s guess, it could be six months it could be six years. Don’t plan ahead. Your entire livlihood could disappear at any point with the stroke of an Atos assessor’s pen.
It is those who are found ‘fit for work’ or placed in the Work Related Activity Group, meaning possibly fit for work at some point in the future, who face the full force of Iain Duncan Smith’s tyranny. If that happens your money can be stopped seemingly on a whim by Jobcentre staff working to unofficial targets to do exactly that. Thousands of people with mental health conditions face sanctions every month. The front line advisors, fed a steady diet of propaganda that work is always good for you no matter what, have no more qualifications in mental health than the person who found you fit for work. You might even be sent off to a private sector shark like A4e and G4S where a low paid goon with a GCSE in being a twat might ship you off on six months workfare. If you are unable to attend you will be sanctioned, your benefits stopped, and you might lose your home. If you miss, or are even late to a meeting the same thing is likely to happen. The very symptoms that some mental health conditions cause – forgetfulness, lack of organisation, bleak depression that stops you leaving the house – will be used against you to stop your benefits. Report after report has shown that these sanctions cause ill health, suicidal behavior and desperate poverty.
At this week’s sanctions enquiry Employment Minister Esther McVey went on, and on, about how much the Jobcentre does to protect so-called vulnerable people – and if you’re not vulnerable when you start out then you will be by the time the bastards have finished with you. But in the Jobcentre Decision Maker’s Guidance, the rules on sanctioning are vague. Whilst it is acknowledged that someone with a mental health condition may have a ‘good reason’ for not complying with a requirement, the judgement rests with a DWP Decision Maker who has never met the claimant and who is acting on a recommendation from a from a front line advisor, or Work Coach. The decision to apply a sanction is therefore little more than a guess, and not even an educated one, the training given to Work Coaches on mental health is a disgrace.
The quote in the above picture, which suggests Work Coaches will probably never meet anyone in real mental distress and therefore they shouldn’t worry about it, comes from the Employment and Wellbeing Toolkit (PDF). This is the training document in mental health for frontline Jobcentre staff who now have such huge powers over unemployed people’s lives. It reveals a breath-taking ignorance of the reality of some mental health conditions.
If a claimant says their mental health is causing such problems they feel like giving up, possibly indicating suicidal thoughts, then Work Coaches should attempt to encourage “Better ability to cope to boost self- confidence and help individual develop a more positive appraisal of their skills and prospects, help to break out of a pattern of reinforcing depression and low mood that can undermine their sense of self worth and purpose.” If a claimant points out their doctor has told them to avoid stress the advice to the Work Coach is to: “Reflect back that not being able to cope and feeling stressed affects almost everyone at some point, but there are still things that can help.” Cheer up in other words, everyone has a bad day.
The basis of the training rests almost entirely on the ideological assumption that work is always good for you, in any circumstances. Even medical treatment should be framed as ‘a step towards employment’. The toolkit even claims that the “search for a job goal can, in itself, have a beneficial effect on mental wellbeing, in much the same way as having a job can promote better health, because it provides a purpose and meaningful activity.” Looking for a job is now good for your health as well according to the DWP. This is fucking mumbo jumbo and if this training document was written by a qualified psychologist they should be struck off.
The idea that work is always good for your mental health dates back to a report produced in 2006 called Is work good for your health and well-being? An independent review by researchers Gordon Waddell and A Kim Burton. It formed part of the evidence that was used to justify the introduction of the Atos run Work Capability Assessment by the Labour administration. Conveniently for the party that wanted to strip out of work sickness benefits from one million people, it claims that work is good for both people’s mental and physical health. This position has come to be regarded as a medical consensus.
However this comes with one vital caveat which is that “account must be taken of the nature and quality of work and its social context; jobs should be safe and accommodating”. A later DWP backed report looking into work and mental health specifically notes that the benefits of work do “not apply to some individuals in some circumstances and that the social context and the nature and quality of the work are important factors.”
This follow up report also points out that: “People with mental health problems who do find work are more likely to be underemployed, employed in low status or poorly remunerated jobs or employed in roles which are not commensurate with their skills or level of education (Stuart, 2006). They are overrepresented in the secondary labour market, which consists almost entirely of parttime temporary jobs. Whilst many who have had mental health problems might value the flexibility, jobs in the secondary labour market are often unstable, poorly remunerated or open to exploitation.”
In other words, exactly the kind of jobs that unemployed people with mental health conditions are likely to get are the ones that are likely to be bad for their mental health. That this stark fact has been ignored lies at the root of the atrocity that is currently taking place in Jobcentres across the UK as Work Coaches are pushed to get people into any job, as quickly as possible. If they then leave, or get sacked from that job, they face benefit sanctions.
The medical consensus is wrong. Work is not always good for you. Some work is good for some people, and some work is bad for some people. If you spend your life sitting around writing DWP reports on a nice salary then of course, depending on your health condition, you will probably be better off at work than living in poverty on benefits. But if you are in a low paid, insecure job, where some jumped-up wanker with a clipboard sets time limits on toilet breaks or threatens you with the sack for taking a day off, then work can be very, very bad for you. Sadly, at the bottom end of the labour market, this is increasingly what work looks like.
The attitude of many employers to people with a mental health condition is appalling. Discrimination is rife, as it is towards those with any health condition or disability. The government’s Access To Work fund which is supposed to help disabled people find work is a shambolic disaster. The number of claimants on sickness benefits who find jobs through the Work Programme is tiny, especially amongst those recently judged fit for work by Atos. There are currently just short of two million unemployed people in the UK and that doesn’t include most of the two million people on sickness or disability benefits who are classed as ‘economically inactive’.
This is the reality of the labour market and no amount of benefit sanctions or Work Capability Assessments will change that. Instead of employers being taken to task for their shoddy treatment of people with mental health conditions, that discrimination has been weaponised against claimants to cut their benefits. People with mental health conditions are being sanctioned to death in some cases for the crime of not having a job when there’s no fucking jobs to be had. It is right that urgent work needs to be done to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health conditions – and that stigma, in part emanates from the DWP Press Office and their snide insinuations that people on benefits are feckless or lazy. It is also correct that far more should be done to end the prejudice in the workplace that causes people with mental health conditions to become excluded from the work force. All of these things can happen without blaming claimants themselves for the dire situation.
There is no such thing as a fair benefit sanction, and the claim is not true that these kinds of conditions have always been at the heart of social security, benefit sanctions were barely used prior to 1997. We live in a society with high unemployment, where real full employment – that is everyone having a job – is deemed neither feasible nor desirable by the very same think-tanks who dream up policies to punish unemployed people.
Benefit sanctions can now last three years and are causing desperate suffering. It will always be the most marginalised, people with mental health conditions, homeless people, those with already damaged lives, who face the brunt of these policies. It is time to condemn this mass malpractice to history and work towards a system that provides humane care and security for everybody. Benefit sanctions must now be scrapped with no exceptions.
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