Apparently it’s World Mental Health Day today. Woo! Phaaaaaaa. (That was the sound of one of those party blower things.) Ceeee-le-brate good times, come on! Dun dun dun dun, dun, dun dun duuun!
People – and for once I’ll include myself in that category – sometimes use dates like this as convenient little nudges to write about our own experiences and assure each other that we’re not alone and that the support is there for those who need it. Being immersed in such positive vibes, it becomes easy to think that mental health is that rare issue on which everyone agrees; for once, we are all pulling in the same direction and making progress. Aside from a few traitorous chemicals in our own brains, there are no villains here.
But the fact is, there are villains in this story, some of them so clear-cut and cartoonish that they could have sprung from the pages of a Dickens novel. In the UK, at least, these villains call themselves the Conservative Party.
Yes, I’m getting political. Sorry. I’ve never really believed in the divide some people seem to perceive between politics and the real world. If there is a divide at all, it is so narrow that politicians can easily hop across it and start ruining the real lives of real people whenever the fancy takes them. So while it may be bad manners to talk politics over dinner, sometimes it becomes necessary, particularly if the DWP are in the process of repossessing your dinner table, smashing your crockery and eating your baked potato.
For those lucky enough not to know, the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) is in charge of the UK’s benefits system, a labyrinth of perma-busy phone lines, endless forms and intimidating face-to-face “assessments” which people who are struggling to find work, for whatever reason, must navigate to have a chance at receiving financial support from the government. The current system is partially a holdover from the previous Labour administration, but was made significantly harsher when the Tories took it over in 2010, citing the desire to stamp out what they perceived as an “institutionalised idleness” in the benefit-claiming population. When you hear about benefits in the UK, you’re usually hearing about all the people who claim them fraudulently – “scroungers”, you might hear them called – and you’re being encouraged to hate them because while you’re out sweating at work doing whatever it is you do (which I’m sure is downright essential to the smooth running of civilisation), they’re at home laughing at you and doing drugs and generally living it up on their cushy allowance of somewhere around £73 per week (the standard rate of ESA – Employment and Support Allowance). And probably being foreign too, while they’re at it.
On occasion scandalous figures are provided to back this up – benefit fraud costs taxpayers over a billion pounds per year! But this is fairly meaningless unless put into some sort of context – this study, for example, shows that benefit fraud accounts for a little over 1% of total benefit claims, while this one shows that it accounts for around 2% of the overall amount lost to fraud in the UK annually, paling in comparison to, for example, corporate tax evasion. In addition, I would be surprised if the amount lost to benefit fraud were anywhere near the amount that ought to have been paid to people whose benefits the DWP have unfairly stopped, or who haven’t been able to face the stress of the system even to claim benefits they are technically entitled to. The horror stories are enough to put anyone off – particularly, I would suggest, the sorts of vulnerable people who might be among those most in need of the exact support that lies at the centre of the nightmarish labyrinth.
In recent years, the UK’s face-to-face benefit assessments in particular have developed a reputation for being unfair and stressful to the point of being inhumane. The United Nations has put together several reports attacking the UK government for, among other things, “totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in” and describing its various cuts to support for disabled people (justified by the government as part of their necessary austerity package to help the UK economy) as “a human catastrophe”. In recent years, vulnerable people with mental health issues and other disabilities have been forced into poverty and even driven to suicide. (And please, if you’re going to follow one link from this blog post, make it that last one.)
Clumsy attempts have been made to distinguish people with mental health conditions from those with “real” disabilities, though these have generally been met with justified contempt by charities and campaigners. In what appeared to be an ill-considered attempt to divide and rule, a Tory MP said in a 2017 interview that he found it “bizarre” that they were giving financial support to people with conditions such as anxiety, and that they should instead be focusing on “the really disabled people who need it”. His subsequent apology was welcome, but would mean a lot more if he and his party weren’t continuing to run the DWP as though the legitimacy and debilitating effects of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression were somehow still in doubt.
The DWP’s complete disregard for both accepted medical opinion and the lived experiences of people with mental illness is demonstrated quite plainly in their 2016 changes to the wording of PIP (Personal Independence Payment) assessments. PIP is intended to provide disabled people with extra money for their everyday support needs, using a points-based system to assess the amount of financial aid (if any) a person will be granted. However, in a question about the subject’s ability to make journeys on their own, a significant caveat was added. Several lines such as “Cannot follow the route of an unfamiliar journey without another person, assistance dog or orientation aid” were amended with the phrase “for reasons other than psychological distress”, essentially disqualifying many mental health problems such as anxiety and depression from being recognised as valid or significant factors in people’s ability to function.
This change was later overturned in a High Court ruling which called it “blatantly discriminatory”, but it still serves as a fairly unambiguous demonstration of the true mindset of the people in charge of the UK benefits system, a mindset that casts people suffering “psychological distress” either as fakers or as the sort of people who hopefully won’t have the strength to complain too much if we kick them while they’re down. If you ever hear a Conservative say they’re treating mental health with the same seriousness as physical health, that one little change to PIP should be all the reason you need to disbelieve them.
My own experiences with the benefits system are entirely in line with the above, but I won’t go into too much depth about them here. I’m lucky enough to have financial support from my family, and so despite having my benefits stopped for dubious reasons only a few months after my doctor suggested I apply for them, I am in no imminent danger of starving or becoming homeless. If I do need help, there are many thousands of other people in the UK right now whose need is greater. That is the reason I don’t feel too self-serving writing this post. Sadly it’s often harder to stand up for your own rights than someone else’s, and infinitely more so if you have the sort of bastard brain that frequently informs you you’re a non-person who doesn’t deserve the same respect, opportunities or happiness as other people. But the idea of people in worse situations than me, and without the support network I’m lucky enough to have, having to fight their way through layers of hostile and dehumanising bureaucracy only to be denied the most basic degree of financial support? I have no hesitation in saying loud and clear that that’s unconscionable, and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees.
The benefits system is of course just one aspect of the UK’s flawed but still vitally important support network for people with mental health problems, and there are many more ways in which the Tories are fumbling their responsibilities to vulnerable people that I could get into here, but this post is long enough already, and I don’t want to diverge too far from things I have personal experience of, in case I get them horribly wrong.
Finally, a wee bit of a nudge from me to you, because the point of this post is certainly not to put people off claiming benefits. If you need benefits, apply for them. If you need help to do so, look for it – if you don’t have family or friends who are good at that sort of stuff, rest assured there are still wonderful people out there, including charities which can help you through the process. If your case is rejected, appeal. (I didn’t, and given the sheer volume of decisions I’ve learned are overturned on appeal, I’ve been regretting it ever since.) The DWP, whatever cuddly words they say, will try to stop you and put you off at every turn, but if you let them, they win.
Most of all, if you care the slightest bit about mental health, don’t vote Conservative.