Flash Says…

World Mental Health Day: Fighting to be recognised, fighting for benefits

Posted on: 2010-10-09

[Crossposted to Where’s the Benefit where I am one of the team. Don’t worry, there is a normal FlashSays article coming soon, but I couldn’t let today pass without recognition.]

Today is World Mental Health Day. It’s also a supposedly auspicious date; many couples are rushing to marry on 10/10/10. But for those with mental illness, there is very little to celebrate. I’ve spoken to two people to find out what today means to them – and to discover how benefit cuts will affect their lives.

Ishmael, a man in his 50s, has manic depression. He is a friendly and engaging man, yet his comments are almost tongue-in-cheek, tinged with the scepticism of a man who has been through the system. He says he is “receiving benefits relevant to someone who lives under the scraped out barrel and is burnt out”.

“It is only because I do stuff for World Mental Health day that I know it is happening. And the awareness events that I have been invited to are preaching to the converted.” He feels that understanding will only come from having a close friend or partner with a disability.

So are “awareness days” actually useful? Do they lead to long-term changes, or even increase knowledge of those conditions?

Kerry is a woman in her 20s with schizoaffective disorder. She speaks eloquently about the understanding that could come if the media report mental health issues appropriately.

“I’d like news journalists to liaise better with specialist health reporters when covering news with health implications. I’m doing an interview soon on my experience of schizoaffective disorder for the Sun newspaper, and whilst their health section is surprisingly reasonable, the main pages often don’t seem to have moved on from ‘Bonkers Bruno’.”

While World Mental Health Day may raise the profile of mental illness among the public, it’s clear that the government could do with a better understanding of the problems faced. Kerry described the difficulties in claiming benefits, in a system which requires illness to be measured in a tangible, predictable manner:

“It’s not possible to give a prognosis as to how long I’ll be in a ‘bad patch’ or not, so when the Government demands that I should be expected to be ill for another six months, that’s not meaningful. I’ll probably always have schizoaffective, but no-one can tell whether I’ll be able to work in 6 months or not.

“The nature of mental illness means it’s hard to deal with the stressful and mentally taxing process of applying for benefits when you are at your most ill. When I most need benefits, I can’t concentrate for long enough to fill in the forms, I don’t properly understand why I have to do them or sometimes just how ill I am, and often I am scared to tell the Government anything because I have delusional beliefs that they will use it to harm me. Housing benefit I find the worst – when you are already scared that people are watching you for malevolent purposes, filling in 19-page forms asking which bedroom you sleep in is not a good thing to be doing.”

Kerry also applied for Employment and Support Allowance, and found the medical assessment difficult, and inappropriate for her condition:

“I found it very stressful and humiliating to answer lots of very personal questions to a complete stranger, particularly as she said she needed to know things which the voices won’t even let me tell my psychiatrist. It was hard to concentrate, I was confused, and my voices were getting more and more angry that I was talking about them to this strange woman.

“Towards the end of the exam, she did some physical tests on me, like seeing how I could move my arms and legs. I thought this was bizarre, since I don’t have a physical impairment, and I don’t like people touching me. I was worried she would hurt me.”

When it is so difficult for someone with mental health conditions to be awarded benefits in the first place, there is a real risk that they will be left behind when the swathe of cuts come in. Ishmael is concerned: “The government thinks that by shutting down services and not paying for the needs of the mental healthers, we and our problems won’t exist. I had better pull my socks up! My early years were impoverished and how to survive has stayed with me, but I am concerned for those who would not be able to manage so well.”

Kerry: “A friend with severe chronic mental illness in Liverpool has been asked to pay £70 per week to use the day centre which is her only social contact. How’s she meant to find that from benefits, particularly if they are being cut?”

As their conditions can be invisible to outsiders, people with mental health issues are vulnerable when times are hard. The final word goes to Kerry, who says that we can fight this: “We don’t have to roll over and let things happen. Get involved with Coalition of Resistance and / or Right To Work in your area. Even if you aren’t able to help practically, tell them about cuts to benefits and services you use. Together, we can spread the message that these cuts will hurt people, screw up the economy, and we aren’t just going to let it happen.”

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