We're all potential benefit claimants
Posted Wednesday 5 October 2011
This is a guest blog from Jenny on how almost anyone could experience mental health problems, unemployment and face the challenges of the welfare system.
The warped standards with which the society judges those on sickness benefits sets us all up for a miserable and self-loathing experience of unemployment.
My behaviour and self-esteem were not entirely ‘normal’ from about 12 years old. Difficult events plus a predisposition towards depression has meant life has often been a rollercoaster of trying to cope. However, a degree and jobs which fed my confidence confounded psychiatrists’ predictions that I’d only ever manage part-time low-stress work. Then recession hit my area of work badly, and following my second redundancy I spent two years unemployed.
After crashing out of a temporary job in less than a week, I made a claim for employment support allowance (ESA). The application process was humiliating, and unfit for assessing varying mental health conditions, exacerbating feelings of self-loathing. Scoring zero points in the assessment confirmed my belief that I was weak and lazy, not depressed, a reaction stemming from prevailing societal attitudes and the illness itself.
I appealed, but felt too scared to attend when the tribunal date arrived. I stopped claiming benefits; came off the anti-depressants I couldn’t believe were helping; and sank into the worst depression of my life. Trying to fake the positive feelings I didn’t believe I’d ever have again, I began waking early, having suicidal thoughts, and plummeting in weight.
Welfare reform was up for debate in Parliament, and the media was full of the usual scrounger rhetoric. I took the discussion of sickness claimants who are ‘not really ill’ as directed at me. A myth is perpetuated that once signed off, no one claiming sickness benefit would ever work again unless forced. It’s not true. Unemployment is confidence draining and deadly dull, sapping motivation and thus appearing to expose the claimant as ‘just lazy’. Those who judge others by these warped standards should be warned: the harder you are on others now, the more you’ll loath yourself when it’s you.
I’m privileged: six months with my parents in a better NHS postcode got me the support that led me to choose to live, and once on that path the desire to work grew rapidly. I’ve now been working for five months, and am more content than ever before in my adult life. Almost anyone could have my experience, with poor mental health being caused and exacerbated by unemployment. Many who face long-term joblessness because of their mental health conditions have far more serious challenges to overcome than I did.
They may never have their confidence built by a job where they are truly valued, and society tells them they’re to blame for that. Meanwhile, Government cuts: programmes which used to give hope; legal aid for benefit cases; and benefits as cost of living soars. Mind is leading the fight back for the mental health lobby, and no one is more important to that fight than mental health service users. We can use our experiences to help others, and perhaps reduce the judgmental rhetoric that hurts everyone.
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