On Mental Health, Or The Lack Thereof

I suffer from mental health issues. Actually, I suffer from mental illness – isn’t it interesting that we only ever use the phrase “mental health” to discuss people who lack it? Specifically, I suffer from Depression, with a capital-D, with bits of anxiety and Low Self Esteem issues thrown in. It’s the main reason I write this blog, both because without my illness I wouldn’t need benefits, and because writing about my experiences is a form of therapy. I feel a bit crappy today, so I thought I’d write an article and hope for catharsis.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that provision of mental health services in this country is sorely lacking. 25% of the population will suffer from mental illness at some time in their life, but it can take months to get to see a counsellor or psychiatrist on the NHS. If your illness stops you from working, and you need state assistance, things start looking really grim.

One of the worst things about depression is that it stops you from seeking help. It stops you from doing pretty much anything, really, but if “had a shower and got dressed” is your biggest achievement for the week, then you probably aren’t going to be up for dealing with the mass of paperwork, doctor’s visits, and assessments required to claim the curiously named “Employment and Support Allowance.” If you do manage it, the first problem you’ll probably be faced with is that you can only claim it going forward – you need special dispensation for it to be backdated. But falling into a depression isn’t like breaking a leg or starting chemotherapy. You don’t have a definite day when your illness started that you can put on forms, and in any case, if you are in a position to even look at the forms, you are probably starting to get better. If you’ve found yourself so stricken with depression that you’ve stopped going in to work, lost your job, and are living off takeaways and instant noodles, applying for benefits is probably pretty far down your list of priorities, about 30 or 40 bullet-points below “don’t kill myself today.” In fact, if you were up to handling the application, you would have been up to going to work.

So pretty much any application for ESA due to mental illness will need to be backdated. Not for the measly £70 or so it grants you, but because you’ll also need to apply for backdated housing benefits, to pay off your landlord who is about to call in the bailiffs due to your several months of unpaid rent. To do this, you’ll need a special letter from your doctor explaining that you weren’t well enough to fill in the forms any sooner, and you’ll need to write your own apologetic little essay saying the same thing. It’s not clear to me why the government should object so strongly to backdated benefits – if you were entitled to them then, how has that entitlement changed with the passage of time? Surely, according to the laws of compound interest, by not claiming the money sooner, you have actually saved precious taxpayers pennies? But of course, the government doesn’t really object to paying backdated benefits, it objects to paying any and all benefits, and seeks ways to worm out of its financial responsibilities to vulnerable members of society at every turn.

The other big problem with being poor and having a mental illness is that you will be required to prove it. Not to your doctor, or your therapist, or the paramedic who closes your gaping self-inflicted wounds, but to a private company. A private company who has a vested interest in rejecting as many claims as possible, never mind that their decisions will be overturned on appeal. I’m talking about ATOS, of course, the company charged with administering “work capability assessments.” So far, I haven’t actually had one of these assessments, although I’m currently waiting for a date to be set for one. Doubtless, when I finally do face this trial-by-ordeal, I’ll have a lengthy article to write about it, for now I’ll only say that the idea of using a private company to make these kinds of decisions, decisions which until 1995 were strictly the purview of general practitioners, is only slightly less reprehensible than handing over responsibilities for child protection services over to private companies. Which is also a thing the government is planning to do, by the way.

Is that catharsis I feel? No, I’m pretty sure this is violent rage. Oh well.