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As the wider rollout of Universal Credit gets nearer, it’s already clear that the new benefit system isn’t working for too many people with mental health problems. So we’re pushing the government to address major issues before millions more people are moved onto the new system. Toni shares her story about how applying for Universal Credit affected her and why she’s campaigning for change.
Toni is supporting our Universal Credit campaign after her own experiences with moving over to it.
Until late last year I had no idea what Universal Credit would mean for me. It was only after my stepson moved back home that my partner and I were told we would have to claim it. Nobody explained what would be different about it, we had to work it out as we went along.
The problems started even before our first interview at the Jobcentre. I’ve struggled with my mental health for many years to the point where I can’t meet strangers on my own without someone there I trust who can help me. But it took a painful row with staff at the Jobcentre just to let my husband be there with me for the appointment. I don’t know why they were being so adamant about it and I just felt bewildered.
"But it took a painful row with staff at the Jobcentre just to let my husband be there with me for the appointment."
Once they said we were eligible for Universal Credit, we were told there would be a five-week wait until the first payment. I’ve been out of work for a long-time because of my mental health and we just didn’t have any savings that would help us make ends meet. In the end we were granted a loan but the staff at the Jobcentre were really resistant to accept that we would need money to tide us over. To get to that point it felt like we had to beg for the money that we were entitled to. It was a humiliating experience.
What made it worse is when the first payment finally came it was more than £300 less than it should have been. This one takes a bit of explanation. If you’re out of work for a long time because of a disability you have to go through a fit-for-work test. I had already been through one of those last year and I found it so distressing to have to talk in detail about how my mental health affects me with a complete stranger. In the end with the support of my husband I managed to get through it and was told that I wouldn’t need another one for three years. But when that first Universal Credit payment came they had ignored this completely. It meant that every month we were paid far less than we should have been. At one point I was even told that I could have to go through a whole new fit-for-work test. I burst into tears after that.
"At one point I was even told that I could have to go through a whole new fit-for-work test. I burst into tears after that."
Following another row with the Jobcentre they told my husband they had made a mistake and I wouldn’t have to go for another test after all – though this still didn’t solve the problem with the underpayments.
Getting this resolved took more than six months. Every time a new payment came we would leave messages on the online system, but it was never the same person responding and after more than eleven attempts things were just going round in circles. Eventually I asked for help on a Facebook group run by people going through Universal Credit. A volunteer from that group actually helped us call up the Department for Work and Pensions and stayed on the phone with us until we got it sorted. It never should have been that hard or taken that long to get the right financial support.
"It never should have been that hard or taken that long to get the right financial support."
Next year the Government says it is going to start moving people receiving existing benefits onto Universal Credit. But it won’t be an automatic process, people will be forced to make a new application. And if they can’t make it in time they risk having their benefits stopped altogether. I was lucky, because I had my husband behind me the whole time. But not everybody has that support network. I am so worried about people who don’t have someone to fight their case. I wouldn’t have coped without my husband. I would probably just have rolled over.
I’m glad that Mind are fighting about this. It’s so important that people who are unwell don’t end up worse off because of these changes. I hope that by telling my story I can help convince the Government that they need to change course while there’s still time.
Read about Mind's campaigns
We'll fight your corner. We believe everyone with a mental health problem should be able to access excellent care and services. We also believe you should be treated fairly, positively and with respect.
Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.