The government’s ‘tough love’ approach to forcing disabled people back into work is causing anxiety, mental ill health and enforced isolation, writes RUTH HUNT
AS REPORTED in the Morning Star earlier this month, more than 80 disability organisations have found that the changeover from disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payments (PIP) has worsened the mental health of claimants, leaving them isolated and struggling to pay for food and bills.
This intervention provides an opportunity to ask what has been the psychosocial impact of the last seven years for claimants?
How are people who have a serious illness and/or disability coping when they are living in fear of the department for Work and Pensions (DWP) processes, which have the power to cause long-term harm to physical and mental health? What is the impact of knowing you are constantly under scrutiny?
The activists from pressure group Recovery in the Bin (RITB) said: “Just saying that the DWP is causing us ‘stress’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.
“People can’t understand why people are killing themselves over the ‘DWP experience.’ That’s why if we don’t talk about it, people don’t realise how the DWP is wrecking our chances of good physical and mental health.
“The government stresses how the welfare reforms are ‘helping’ people back to work, but everything about the benefit system is so counterproductive to being as well as you can be, as and when you can, because it feels like punishment, which is reinforced until it grinds you down and down and down.”
We all know “the DWP experience” involves the demonisation of the ill and disabled, with covert surveillance of claimants and attempts to trip them up.
We know how sections of the media and social media have an obsession with what they call “scroungers.”
We know armed with this misinformation, the general public can “shop” neighbours and colleagues who they might think are abusing the system.
What we might not realise is how all of that, combined with a punishing benefits system, made up of continual assessment and reassessments, is having the opposite effect of what the government claims.
Far from this “tough love” encouraging the disabled into work, the constant stomach-churning anxiety, plus finger-wagging, suspicion and spying is forcing many indoors, out of sight, with all the risks enforced isolation can have on physical and mental health. What should be a straightforward procedure — the claiming of benefits — has become a living nightmare.
This “experience” is something this activist knows all too well: “Since 2010 I have become much more nervous going out. I feel paranoid about any strange cars or vans. I get scared to leave the house with just my stick — even if I’m going to a car parked directly outside and using a wheelchair the other end.
“I get nervous about walking the distances I can manage for fear of being accused of being able to do more. I feel that everyone, including some peers, now judge me on the basis of whether I am employed or not, that no amount of voluntary work could ever match up to the gold standard of being employed. It makes me feel like I no longer qualify as human in their eyes.”
RITB pointed out that those who have a mental illness, and are already prone to paranoia and/or hear voices, can have their symptoms exacerbated by the covert nature of the surveillance by the DWP.
One of the activists felt they were being scrutinised and constantly filmed: “I thought anyone asking me for directions or for change in the car park was a set-up. It made me so much more paranoid and more unwell and restricted me from doing anything remotely beneficial.
“It got to the stage where I thought any car driving past; any plane flying over my house was filming me. I thought the TV and my computer were filming me at home. I didn’t want neighbours to ever see me in case they were keeping notes on me. I have always been prone to paranoia but it got completely out of control when I was being reassessed.”
With the reach of the DWP now extending online, another activist became paranoid about having “happy” photos on social media, stating: “I remember Fightback [www.fightback4justice.co.uk] advising people to only post information on social media which reflected exactly what they said on their forms, and I see their point entirely.
“It increases isolation because, on the one hand, to help maintain friendships people want to see positive things, on the other, I’m afraid to focus on the positive in case the DWP looks at my Facebook page and assumes it is a true reflection of my life and circumstances.”
The impact isn’t simply psychological. RITB said many of them felt unable to contribute to charities in a voluntary capacity for fear of the DWP using this against them, or assuming they are fit for a nine-to-five job.
This means valuable service-user contributions are being lost. A dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t conundrum.
However, what they stressed was the most worrying impact was what this environment had on the overall mental health of claimants.
Suicides are becoming common, along with the rise in use of antidepressants and hospital admissions.
They felt lives that with the right amount of help and support could be valuable to society as a whole are being denied the chance to flourish: “Living like this is the complete antithesis to being supported in being able to make the best of what you can and of contributing what you can.
“I am trying to challenge it personally at this current time but one push from the DWP and I know I’ll be back right over the edge. Every contact from them makes life more precarious. They have taken my hope, my potential and my future. I used to have security; the system was so much fairer and easier to negotiate, with support, not like it is now.”
Ruth F Hunt is the author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).