Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘benefits’

So what do you do?

I really hate this question. At social gatherings, in the school playground, chatting to people at the park, occasionally even when I’m doing the shopping – it keeps popping up like a particularly persistent meerkat. And I never know how to answer it. “I’m unemployed” or “I’m a stay-at-home mum” are both true statements but they only cover part of what I do. The same goes for “I do volunteer work” and “I write”. The trouble is that people usually only ask this question as a way of politely extending a conversation or so they can mentally file you in the appropriate box. They want a brief, concise answer and I don’t have one.

So what do I do? Well, the main thing I don’t do is have a paid job. I haven’t since the birth of my daughter in 2009, when I had such severe PND that I was unable to return to work at the end of maternity leave and eventually lost my beloved job as a result. Since then my mental health has never been good enough for me to return to formal employment. Many (including myself in harsher moments) would label me a benefits scrounger, someone spongeing off the state and hard-working taxpayers.

And yet I work hard. I work hard to support and care for my husband as he struggles with bipolar disorder and what can sometimes be crippling anxiety. I work hard to look after our two children, ensuring that they are healthy and happy. I make sure our meagre income covers the bills as well as paying for healthy food and adequate clothing for a pair of ravenous, growing youngsters. I keep our home clean and relatively tidy. I do voluntary work a couple of mornings a week, I write, I take the children to playgroups, parties, parks, the beach, days out. And I do all of this while dealing with my own mental illnesses (and hiding that fact from the children), and suffering from chronic back pain. Of course DH does these things too when he can but there are often times when, through no fault of his own, he can’t.

It’s hard. It’s really bloody hard. I’m lucky to have supportive family close by who help out when I need them. I have supportive friends at the end of the phone or online, and a brilliant GP who always makes time to see me if I need her. But I don’t fit into the neat little box that society would like me to. And I still don’t know how to answer the question.

Recover or else?

This morning I read this news story with a mixture of exasperation, anger and fear. The British government, having already made life close to unbearable for disabled people, are now turning their attention to another extremely vulnerable group: those with mental illnesses. It seems that spending 15% of the welfare budget on the sick and disabled is unsustainable (but apparently spending 21% on low income workers and 42% on the elderly isn’t a problem). So government ministers have come up with the idiotic brilliant idea of forcing people with depression or anxiety to attend therapy, and stopping their benefits if they’re unable to.

In response to this article I dashed off several quick objections to this proposal:


It’s proven very popular on Twitter, having been retweeted over 200 times now, but now I’d like to explain these points properly.

1) You can’t force people into therapy and then expect them to get anything out of it. Whether it’s cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapy or anything else, the individual has to be willing and able to undergo what can often be a traumatic and upsetting experience. Forcing someone who isn’t ready to go through this would be highly counter-productive, exacerbating the problem and further alienating the ill person.

2) No-one will trust a therapist who they know is focused on declaring them fit to work, come what may. Just as you wouldn’t automatically trust someone you met on the street, you don’t automatically trust a therapist. A relationship has to be built, slowly and cautiously, and trust must be earned. If you know that the person you’re supposed to be baring your soul to isn’t focused on what’s best for you but only on telling the government that you can work, that trust will be non-existent. In addition, the basic principle underlying psychotherapy is that clients give voluntary (ie not forced), informed consent; would therapists even be allowed to treat patients who attended under duress?

3) In most areas there’s a long wait for talking therapies and CBT, often a year or more. Are the government going to conjure therapists out of a hat as though they’re well-qualified rabbits? When funding for mental health services have already been drastically cut, how can thousands more people be forced into a system that’s already bursting at the seams?

4) “We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions”. Wrong – they *can* be treatable conditions. There are all kinds of depression and anxiety and some of them are permanent. Whilst most of the time depression and anxiety can be transient illnesses, passing with the right treatment, for some they are merely manageable with treatment and don’t go away. Being forced to attend further therapy is only going to make these illnesses worse.

5) “Cognitive behavioural therapies work and they get people stable again”. Wrong again – they *can* work. For some people CBT is an utter waste of time, as I can attest. There is no panacea for depression and anxiety, no one-size-fits-all cure. If there was then we wouldn’t be having this discussion!

6) Most of the welfare budget actually goes to the working poor through tax credits. Instead of targeting the ill and vulnerable yet again, why not legislate for companies to pay a living wage instead of having to top up incomes via welfare? As I wrote at the start of this post, only 15% of the welfare budget is paid to those who are sick and/or disabled. Why aren’t the government ensuring workers are paid a proper living wage, instead of having to pay 21% to people who work but are paid so little that they’re still impoverished? It couldn’t possibly be because vulnerable groups are easier to target, could it? Or perhaps ministers have fooled themselves into believing their own “scroungers” rhetoric.

7) Oh and let’s not forget the billions of pounds lost through legal tax avoidance, why not close that loophole while they’re at it? The Telegraph article states that “Estimates based on government figures suggest the state spends up to £1.4 billion a year – more than £3.5 million per day – on ESA for these claimants with mental health issues”. But other government figures have shown that over £5.1 billion a year is lost through tax evasion. The government is targeting the vulnerable instead of those who think they’re too good to pay taxes.

Many ill and disabled people have died within 6 weeks of being declared fit to work by ATOS, the company contracted by the UK government to reduce disability payments. How many more will die if this ill-considered idea is actually put into practice? Sadly we may soon find out, as pilot schemes are being rolled out in the near future.

One last thing. You are only one illness, one accident, away from becoming disabled yourself. 1 in 4 people in the UK will have a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Although this government’s barbaric policy of targeting the ill and vulnerable may not affect you today, there’s no guarantee that it won’t tomorrow.

5 ways to escape poverty in the UK

I’ve been amazed recently at how little empathy the British public seems to have for the poor in this dreadful economic situation of ours. But following my recent post about the scrounger stereotype I’ve been contacted by a lot of people who were genuinely surprised and horrified at the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. I’ve come to realise that a lot of people are just too fortunate to understand why a problem they see as easily solveable can actually be very complex.

Just get a job

As I wrote in my earlier post, this is often far from easy. Recent figures show that there are at least 4 Jobseekers claimants applying for each unfilled JobCentre vacancy in the UK; in some areas there are more than 20 JSA applicants per vacancy. Then of course there are those who are already working but are applying for other jobs. A few years ago a new supermarket opened in the city where I lived and over 5,000 people applied for 350 jobs.

Childcare costs often prevent parents from working, as does the rarity of work in school-hours only. Some parents are able to work around this by training as childminders and looking after other people’s children as well as their own but this isn’t always appropriate or an option.

Learn to budget

An assumption often seems to be made that the poor fritter their money away, that if they could just learn to budget they’d be fine. This may be true for a few but in my experience those on the breadline are extremely good at budgeting – they have to be. When your basic expenditure is nearly equal to (or sometimes exceeds) your income you learn to be very careful with every penny. Of course living in the edge like this only works until the unexpected happens. Perhaps the car breaks down or maybe it’s the boiler; your child has a growth spurt and needs new clothes or shoes; there’s an essential school trip that hadn’t been mentioned before. This leads me onto the next point…

Don’t borrow money you can’t repay

Unexpected costs tend to lead to borrowing. Perhaps the individual is lucky and can borrow from friends or family but more usually it’s a credit card that covers the gap. Bank loans are highly unlikely and so the payday lenders have cornered the market. They guarantee you a short-term loan no matter what your circumstances are – but the interest rates are extortionate, usually 3,000% or higher. And of course once you’ve borrowed money your monthly expenditure increases until you can pay back the debt. But if you were already stretched to the limit you won’t be able to pay it back.

Don’t have children if you can’t afford them

This one irritates me intensely. Yes, the ‘scrounger’ who deliberately has hordes of children while claiming benefits is a popular stereotype (mostly thanks to portrayals in the press or television programmes like Channel 4’s Skint) but it is very far from the norm. What many people don’t seem to realise is that circumstances can change. People fall ill, are made redundant or have their hours cut. Just because someone is poor now doesn’t mean that it was always thus.

Another point worth making is that even the most effective contraception can fail, even when used correctly. If a baby is conceived unexpectedly the impoverished parents have few options – have an abortion, give the baby into care or keep the baby and struggle on. Having been in this situation I can assure you that it is a dilemma I would not wish on anyone.

Sell the car

Not a bad suggestion if you live in a city with cheap and frequent public transport. But if you live anywhere else it’s unlikely that his solution is as cost effective as you might think. Where I live the bus I would use most often runs once an hour and not at all on Sundays or bank holidays. It also costs £4.20 to travel 2 miles.

I don’t have a clever or pithy conclusion to this post. But in the week that a report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty announced that “There is mounting evidence that the inadequacies of the welfare safety net are now directly driving the growth of hunger and reliance on charitable food handouts” it seems to me that a little less ignorance about poverty and a little more empathy towards those suffering it can only be a good thing.

Scroungers, scum and society’s ignorance

Benefits, welfare, the dole – call it what you will. It’s the financial safety net that attempts to aid and protect the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. It pays for housing for those who can’t afford it, it pays for clothes and food for children when their parents are out of work, pays for appropriate help for the elderly and those with disabilities.

But thanks to years of inflammatory rhetoric from politicians and the media, those in receipt of benefits are demonised, hated, mocked and looked down upon. They’re scroungers, scum, they all have enormous flatscreen televisions, they drink and smoke, they don’t want to work. It’s a familiar stereotype but it’s an inaccurate one. A YouGov poll recently found that two fifths of people asked think benefits are too generous. However it also found that people who know least about benefits are the most hostile towards claimants.

The fact is that a far greater proportion of the welfare budget is spent on people in paid work than is on the able-bodied unemployed. According to the DWP Income Support and Working Tax Credits (both paid to those in work but on low incomes) in the financial year 2011-2012 amounted to £13.8bn. In contrast to this just £4.9bn was paid to those claiming Jobseekers Allowance. The same DWP figures show that welfare costs are divided as follows:

Elderly – 42.3%
Low income – 20.8%
Families – 18.4%
Sick and disabled – 15.5%
Jobseekers – 2.6%
Other – 0.4%

So much for the accusation that the unemployed are a major drain on the welfare budget.

Another popular whinge about those claiming benefits seems to be that it’s working people’s taxes who pay for their flatscreen TV and luxurious lifestyle. Now, putting aside that stereotype it is quite true that tax pays for the welfare system. It also pays for the NHS, road maintenance, the emergency services, the armed forces, schools, the royal family, council responsibilities such as rubbish collections and so on. Any working individual is paying a very small proportion of their tax into the benefits system and it’s very important that they do. Why? Because you never know when you might need that safety net. It’s all very well for working people to complain about the unemployed but the truth is that they are only one redundancy, one accident or illness away from being out of work themselves.

So let’s look at that stereotype now, starting with the inevitable complaint about flatscreen televisions. Firstly I’m not sure whether it’s even possible these days to buy a television that isn’t flatscreen. Secondly, it’s entirely possible that said television was bought in better times, while someone in the family was working. Thirdly, it may have been a gift. Fourthly and most crucially – it really isn’t anyone’s business what a benefits claimant spends their money on (this applies to alcohol and cigarettes as well).

Another common misconception about the unemployed is that they’re lazy, workshy and can’t be bothered to get a job. Well folks, it’s not that easy. Recent figures show that at least 4 people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance apply for each unfilled JobCentre vacancy in the UK. In some areas of the country there are more than 20 applicants per vacancy. A JSA claimant has to show that they are applying for at least 3 jobs per week or they don’t receive the payment of £71.70. Yes, that’s all JSA is. Even allowing for housing benefit (which many jobseekers won’t be entitled to because they have a mortgage) and child tax credits/child benefit that’s a very small amount to raise a family on. Utility bills, food, clothing for growing children, money for school trips and expenses, maybe broadband to facilitate jobhunting and homework, maybe a car… Very few people claiming benefits are living a life of luxury.

So next time you hear the a politician or other public figure making inflammatory claims about those on benefits, or the next time you read an overly exaggerated story in the media, stop. Pause. Remember the DWP figures, remember the facts – and remember that one day it could be you on the receiving end of that hatred.

My inferiority is complex

I always got high grades at school. I played several musical instruments. I went to university and obtained 2 degrees. I had good jobs, first as a forensic scientist and then as an analyst for part of the Foreign Office.

And now here I sit. I am unemployed, unfit to work and living on benefits. My husband is also unemployed at the moment and has been for some time. We have 2 small children whom we manage to feed and clothe adequately (partly thanks to my mother, who pays for their coats and shoes). My husband and I aren’t fed or clothed as adequately – we mainly eat pasta, I’m down to my last pair of jeans and the only shoes I have are an old pair of hiking boots. (At least they’re practical for this never-ending winter! :-)).

So what happened? After the birth of my daughter I was unable to return to work due to a combination of PND and what I now know to be generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). I was eventually dismissed from the job I loved on the grounds of ill health. My husband had lost his job some months earlier, when DD was only a few months old, and so we had no income and no way to pay the mortgage. Eventually the inevitable happened – we were declared bankrupt and our home was repossessed, forcing us to move in with my parents 200 miles away.

After a couple of months we discovered that I was unexpectedly pregnant with DS. We had to move out and start claiming benefits. Fortunately by this time DH was working again but he was made redundant when DS was 6 months old.

My mental health still isn’t good enough for me to work (I have recently been diagnosed with cyclothymia as well as GAD). Degenerative disc disorder means that even if I was mentally fit to work I would be unable to do any job more physical than sitting in front of a computer.

And I am ashamed. Although this situation isn’t my fault, isn’t our fault, I am deeply ashamed of what my life has become. I hate not being able to work, being reliant on the state and my mother’s charity. Every time someone asks me what I do I say brightly “Oh, I’m at home with the children at the moment” as though it was a choice we had made (and of course if money was no object I’d be happy to be a SAHM while the children are young).

Most of my friends are university friends and have good jobs. Many of them are starting to have children of their own and returning to work, something I was unable to do. I hate my weakness in not being able to go back to the job I loved. I feel inferior to those who choose to return to work and inferior to those who have to. I feel inferior to those who are wealthy enough to have one parent at home through choice. In short I feel inferior to just about everyone.

I used to be so confident, so good at what I did and I had a bright future ahead of me. These days I do almost anything I can to stop acquaintances realising the truth of what I am – the double stigma of being mentally ill and living on benefits is too much. I can’t remember the last time we had friends over, or the children had someone round to play – we always go to other people’s houses instead.

Rationally I know that I have little to be ashamed of. This situation isn’t our fault, we do all we can and things will improve one day. But I feel the shame nonetheless, and inferiority has become a part of my identity now. It’ll take a lot to shake it loose.

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