Every year 300,000 people with mental health problems fall out of work. Too often that can be the first step of a messy and complicated process.
I work in Mind’s campaigns team and I hear every day from people who are trying to get back to work but who are struggling through confusing benefits forms, intimidating letters from the Jobcentre, and appointments in busy open-plan offices where discussing your mental health can feel next to impossible.
Last week I spoke to Eve who has PTSD and often struggles to be around people who she doesn’t know. She has been receiving ESA for years and because of her mental health she’s been told that she doesn’t have to go to the Jobcentre unless she chooses to. She told me that after a long time out of work she wanted to try getting a part-time job. Her first thought was to call the Jobcentre for advice on putting together a CV. Five days later she received a letter in a brown envelope telling her she had an appointment booked and her benefit would be stopped if she didn’t attend. The shock of that letter and the fear of losing her income sent her into crisis. It was only after she returned from hospital when she received a voicemail message telling her the letter had been sent in error. And Eve isn’t alone.
In October last year the Government said it wanted to start a conversation about how it could make the system better. Thousands of Mind campaigners shared their stories and called for change. They talked about the need to tackle stigma in the workplace, to make benefits assessments more compassionate, and to take the fear out of going to the Jobcentre. Today the Government published its plan of action.
There are some steps forward including better training for Jobcentre staff and a commitment to improve the support that people with mental health problems get from their employers. But what sticks out the most is that the Government has made no commitments to tackle the impact of benefit sanctions on people with mental health problems and is still considering plans that would make the situation worse. Nearly 3000 people with mental health problems shared their experiences with the Government. For people who had been sanctioned it had a devastating effect on their financial security. But even for those who hadn’t, the fear that they might be sanctioned made them dread going to appointments at the Jobcentre, made their mental health worse, and damaged any trust they had in back-to-work support.
I can't count the number of times I've had panic attacks in Jobcentres or how anxious even the thought of them makes me feel.
It made me not trust the Jobcentre staff and not want to tell them anything. I was also more worried about going to the Jobcentre in case I had done something wrong without knowing.
We’re here to campaign so that everyone experiencing a mental health problem can get both support and respect. Stories like Eve’s show us how far we have to go but also why we can’t give up. No matter how long it takes, we’ll keep pushing for an end to sanctions and mandatory requirements for people with mental health problems, for a better way of doing benefits assessments, and for good back-to-work support for anyone who wants it. Will you join us?
If you'd like to read our in-depth policy briefing you can download the pdf here.