Bewildered by benefits

All rights reserved Bibi Senthi 2016

*Ramblings and thoughts based on my own experience and those of people I know only.*

Denial about my mental health problems has helped me find work on many occasions but it also meant I approached work in a way that was unsustainable. Although I have interests and motivations, I haven’t been very clear about my focus and so followed a somewhat wandering career. I didn’t factor any time for recovering, self care, or make allowances for any of the difficulties I might face in the workplace. So of course I would eventually get overwhelmed and go on sick leave and resign. Job seeker’s allowance seemed the most denial-friendly way to cope with this until I could muster up some strength to find something, almost anything, that I could manage. And so the cycle began again. And again.

At some point you have got to accept that you have to do something differently to achieve a different result. In 2012, I did something I have always done, which was to seek support in a superficial way. I did CBT for spider phobia, which helped a little, but it soon became clear there was a lot more going on. Usually this would have been my cue to give up on therapy and hibernate till I could restart the cycle.

Time for something different….

I was lucky enough to be challenged and supported to try something different by a clinical psychologist. Compassion focused therapy and a blend of other approaches with enough time to develop a safe therapeutic relationship meant I could start doing therapy by actually experiencing my feelings in therapy and learning how to tolerate them. Exploring things by experiencing them rather than just talking about them. You just can’t think your way out of emotional problems.  More about actual therapy another time but this was the reason I was able to accept that I had longstanding difficulties and so I decided for the first time, to apply for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) instead of Job Seeker’s Allowance.  I also applied for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) a non means-tested benefit for the extra costs of living with disability.

It’s actually very destabilising to have to make a case for sickness or disability benefits when you rely on denial to keep yourself going. But with support and luck it’s doable. Luckily for me I had no face to face assessments in the beginning which then meant I could take my next massive step in breaking the cycle: I stayed.

I found a flat by myself for the first time. I stuck around instead of running back home or to another city. I stayed where I was building up therapeutic and social relationships. Putting down roots.

Both benefits were a total godsend. I could afford a quiet little flat, where I felt relatively safe and create a little recovery nest for myself. As I found out more about how to manage my mental and physical problems, the money became indispensable. Trying out aids and equipment for physio exercises, taxis, emergency money for when I was in crisis, a cleaner so I didn’t get overwhelmed by the household stuff, ready meals, pre-prepared ingredients, mindfulness books, books about mental health, a self compassion course – you get the picture – there was a lot of “stuff” involved in helping me get better at managing stuff. I was thinking about work, leaving the flat a little bit more, looking at recovery services. It was exactly what PIP and ESA are supposed to be for. To help me live independently, to have a life that is a bit closer to what my life might look like if things were different with my circumstances and health.

This is where the story should end, or where it should carry on as you might hope it to anyway! Maybe I would find something sustainable in the world of paid work and no longer be reliant on ESA. Maybe I could use my experience to help others do the same. Maybe my physio and ability to get out and about with taxis may have lead to better physical health too.

Instead, I have been reassessed for PIP, and this time found to be not eligible for any of this disability benefit money.

The process of reassessment itself was severely destabilising again and increased my use of local NHS services and out of hours services over a period of months. The decision meant I also lost money from PIP but also from ESA. I can afford a lot less of the stuff that helps me cope, I feel worse and I am moved several steps back in my recovery. Not only that, this major change in my budget happened with a few weeks warning.

It isn’t rocket science – I was given a benefit designed to help me cope with life because of my disabilities. I learned to use this to help me and then it was taken away because it was helping me (one of the reasons my application was denied is because my clinic letters state that there’s been improvement in my management of my symptoms and conditions). Nevermind that this is a relative statement that requires some idea of what that improvement means compared to most healthy people. Even if I had improved enough to no longer be eligible for the benefit, there really needs to be an adjustment period before removal of all financial support.

The NHS picks up the tab for the backwards steps in recovery but not only that. The DWP ask you not to specifically request evidence from your health professionals. They also didn’t seem to request evidence themselves for my application, relying on the letters sent out as a matter of course. So to ensure future applications are more successful, do I need to take up health professionals’ precious time with documenting all my daily struggles as fully as possible, even though this isn’t an official activity that can be accounted for in time or money, or necessary to my care? Surely the health system has enough to be dealing with already?

When I read about what PIP was supposed to be for, I thought it seemed too good to be true but it sounded like me. It’s for people who can’t do certain tasks reliably, repeatedly and to a high enough standard most of the time. This includes if these tasks impact you more than a healthy person. In practice though, I felt my assessor thought the benefit was for someone who couldn’t cut a carrot on a single occasion, if she put one in front of them.

If they had said that this is who the benefit is for, I never would have applied! 

Now it seems that ESA will get cut for those “who are ill but may be capable of work soon”. Because “work should pay”. Of course you shouldn’t lose out by starting work but I literally know noone who would not want to work because they were getting enough to cover their basic living expenses already. The reasons for unemployment are of course far more complex than “I can feed myself, therefore I won’t bother doing anything at all with my life”. And let’s not forget the many people that contribute huge amounts to society without being reimbursed for it (unpaid carers, stay-at-home mothers and fathers, volunteers). I believe that the fear of benefits being removed drives longer term worklessness more than the fact that your bills are (just) being covered. People get gradually more and more scared to take a leap of faith into the employment world, especially as the very system they rely on is repeatedly attacked and cut.

To borrow from the therapy that has been helping me – We have three main systems in the brain: threat, drive and soothing. The threat system is about fear, quick reactions, self preservation and leaves little time for reflection. Both the drive system and the soothing system can help alleviate problems with lots of threat system activity. The drive system is avoidance and busyness and the soothing system is about caring, compassion and contentment and generally much more reliable at reducing our focus on threats.

The more we attack people on benefits and reduce their financial and emotional resources for coping, the less soothed their nervous systems will be, and the less likely that they will be able to find sustainable solutions to their problems, feeding an endless cycle of poor health and worklessness. Short term solutions maybe, but much less likely sustainable enriching, creative, innovative or compassionate ones. There is a world of difference between working to survive, and working creatively to improve your life and others. What could these people contribute to society if we let them feel safe?

Isn’t the safety net of resources in better-off families advantageous to children’s outcomes? Not having to count every penny and owning a home gives us the opportunity to explore different options, take gap years, take extra training courses or take advantage of unpaid internships. Obviously there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, but I don’t think that the people who have the most difficulty in gaining and maintaining employment are in any danger of getting too much at the moment.