A few thoughts.
This post is really a list of some of the people I’ve spoken with over the past couple of years who have mental health conditions and/or drug and alcohol problems and have had a revolting time as benefits and support services have been cut, and social security “reformed”.
These are the people few really give a stuff about. They’re the people who are, in our blame-laying, fingerpointing era, increasingly thought to be beneath sympathy or empathy: the people who “reformers” believe only need a good stint of homelessness, or abject poverty, to wake them up to themselves. If they don’t wake up – well, who cares? They’re austerity collateral. They don’t deserve much. If they’re alcoholics and addicts, they don’t deserve anything at all – a chance, or a second chance, or any help creating one.
They’re the people who prove that despite political blathering to the contrary, mental health conditions aren’t taken as seriously as all that and that people who have those issues are, when you get down to it, thought of as disposable. They can safely be left to rot. They cost too much and they don’t always look good and they don’t fit prettily with anybody’s narrative. They don’t even have a place in the poverty porn that some writers like to indulge in when they’re trying to tug heartstrings and prove how awful the Tories are. They’re not always clean enough for that. There’s a sense that they’ve brought too many of their problems on themselves – certainly, there’s a sense that most people with serious addiction problems have asked for those problems, as you do – and that readers won’t be able to see past that. I’ve had a lot of trouble drawing mainstream press attention to some of these people and some of the issues that they’re dealing with. I’ve had editors send interviews back to me and/or ask if I’ve got anything else. I remember watching the 16 May debate in parliament on mental health and thinking that the most telling part of the debate was that almost nobody turned up to take part in it.
And things keep happening – miles under the radar. The services that were all that stood between people and homelessness and chaos keep closing, or taking funding hits. Mental health supported living hostels – places which once provided staffed accommodation for people who’d recently been discharged from hospital and prison and so on – close. Drop-in centres, foundations and trusts have closed or taken major funding hits. Workers who provide drug and alcohol support services, rehabilitation and mental health support services are told to take major salary cuts and watch as services deteriorate. Nobody cares.
They only care when it looks like people with these issues might regain a bit of ground. If the goalposts are moved a few inches in favour of people in need, policymakers are quick to try and move them back. A couple of months ago, for example, the Mental Health Resistance Network and the Public Law Project won an Upper Tribunal decision which found that Atos employment and support allowance work capability assessments discriminated against people with mental health conditions. That decision would have made the DWP responsible for sourcing medical evidence for ESA claimants with mental health conditions at the start of their ESA claims – a step that would have helped ensure that those claimants had their complete medical histories taken into account when they were assessed. The DWP didn’t like that decision and was granted leave to appeal it. That was the sort of decision which could have improved people’s lives. Kept them alive, even. I suspect that keeping people alive isn’t quite the aim of the greater exercise.
This is just a list.
Stephen: from Newcastle, aged 54. Has a long-term schizophrenia diagnoses and has been in and out of care, hospital, work, training and volunteer work all of his life. I attended Stephen’s Atos face-to-face assessment with him last year. We were both surprised when he was awarded zero points in a report that didn’t mention his schizophrenia. The schizophrenia diagnoses was mentioned in the notes that accompanied the report – but said that Stephen didn’t experience hallucinations, which he does. He appealed the decision and was placed in the support group six months later. In other words – he went from zero points in his original assessment, to the ESA support group – the group people are placed in when they have the highest needs. That was quite a turnaround. A lot of us who worked with Stephen at that time wondered exactly what criteria Atos was using.
Michael: 43, from Newcastle. Has severe depression and borderline personality disorder. He was especially worried about having to pay the bedroom tax out of his benefits. He had a small spare room in his flat – he was moved to a two-bedroom flat years ago after run-ins with gangs on his previous estate. The council moved him to his current flat for his safety. He was terrified of being moved back. He and Stephen both felt it would be impossible to get a job now because of their ages and their mental health histories.
Sean: from Wellingborough. In his 40s. Has an Asperger diagnoses and suffers from severe depression. Sean asked for his ESA face-to-face assessment to be recorded and had to wait more than six months for his assessment because of that – it took Atos six months to find working equipment to make the recording. I attended Sean’s assessment with him at the end of last year. The stress of waiting for the appointment nearly overwhelmed him in the months before it – he called and emailed regularly to say that he was thinking about suicide. Meanwhile, staff at his local mental health support facility had told Sean that he and his wife Maggie could no longer attend, because their needs were not serious enough (he said that the last thing their social worker told them at their last meeting was to call the police if things got really bad). In addition to their problems with ESA and Atos, the couple must also pay bedroom tax and council tax now that council tax benefit has been cut.
Maggie: from Wellingborough. In her 30s. Like Stephen, she has a long-term schizophrenia diagnoses and has been in and out of hospital since her first breakdown – when she was 21. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997 and was sectioned then. She says: “it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s real or in my head with paranoid schizophrenia. Seeing things that aren’t really there. Hearing voices in your head and things like that. Suspicious of what people are thinking. Not knowing what’s real and what’s not.” She and Sean must pay the bedroom tax and council tax out of their benefits. Maggie has been on incapacity benefit, but recently had notice that she will be moved from IB to ESA and will have to undergo an Atos face-to-face assessment as part of that. She asked her doctor if she would be eligible for an exemption. He said he could not help her and that she would have to go through the assessment.
Dean: in his 30s, living in Stroud. A long-time heroin addict, he recently walked from Cheltenham to Stroud to live to get away from the heroin scene he was involved in when he was living in Cheltenham. He’s had problems with his ESA, because, he says, he gave a “Care Of” address for his application and had trouble keeping up with paperwork. The truth is that he has no home address, because he’s been living in a tent. The local Christian group which puts on free meals for people on benefits in Stroud made a point of introducing him to me, because they thought his story should be told. Dean had managed to stay clean and off heroin for four weeks when I met him last week – all while hiking about and living in a tent. He said that he believed that he needed to be resident in Stroud for a few more months (he’d been there for four months) to be eligible for services. As Darren and the people serving meals on the day we met said – if there’s any time at all that you want to help a guy who is trying to come off heroin, it’s when he’s managed to stay off heroin for a month while living in a tent. That’s when he should get benefits – not when he shouldn’t.
Agnes, living in London. She had a schizophrenia diagnoses and a long-term alcoholism problem. Her local council, which was closing her mental health supported living hostel, said it had found her a new place to live when it had not. She was terrified of being placed in a B&B or a low-support hostel, because she’d been abused in places like that before. After the article I wrote about this appeared in the Guardian, the council in question tried to sack the staff it thought had spoken to me for the piece.
Peter (name changed), in his 40s. Lives in Weymouth. Has had long-term problems with drug and alcohol abuse and a long history of street homelessness. “I actually went round to the council one morning, because I was so done in from sleeping on the pier. It was chucking it down with rain – gale-force wind – and I only had 30 minutes’ sleep, because of the fucking generators going on the bastard ferry. I walked into the council and I said “why don’t you just take me to the hospital and give me a lethal injection?” You can’t imagine it, can you? Like – everything you’ve got now is gone. [You’ve got] no money. As soon as you change anything, your housing benefit is gone. They put me off ESA and put me back on jobseekers’ (Peter was recently found fit for work after an Atos assessment. That means his income is about £65 a week). I went five weeks without any money and I went to the council and three bloody forms I had to fill in. I said – “excuse me. How many trees [are you using for these forms]? I can’t wait for you to wipe out the rainforest, because I won’t have to worry about paperwork any more.”
John, 60. Living in Stroud. Had trained as an engineer after leaving school and had worked long-term in electrical engineering jobs for most of his life. Was made redundant several times, the last time about ten years ago. His marriage broke up as well and he had to sell his house. Since then, he hasn’t been able to find another job – his age, he thinks – and the savings have gone. So, he’s on JSA and is regularly sanctioned. He lives in a room in a house that is occupied by people who are in similar situations. He really, really would like a job. Without one and an income, he won’t be able to change his situation. At the age of 60, he doesn’t think that chance is likely to come around.
Jim. In his 50s. Living in Stroud. Had a signmaking business, which fell apart about five years ago. Became very depressed, went on a drinking binge and lost the little money he had left. Has a daughter in the Army and a son who is working. Is on JSA and – like most of the people on benefits I met in Stroud last week – had regularly been sanctioned. Was very keen to get a job, but thought his age and drinking history were working against him. Was finding out how difficult it was to get a second chance.