Thursday, September 21News For London

“People are in fear”: mental health activists on benefit reforms

Imagine that you have both a mental health condition and a physical disability. With government reforms to the benefit system, you lost your claim to assistance. You can no longer afford food, travel, electricity or gas. Finally, one day, your power is cut off and you’re left sitting in the dark by yourself. One benefit claimant, who experienced this, felt so isolated, scared and stressed, that she attempted to take her own life.

Disabled activists and protesters marched from Old Palace Yard to Parliament Square [Photo: Blyth Brentnall CC/BY/SA]
Many have had similar experiences. Up to 90 people a month die after being declared fit for work. Others are barely able to survive. Roy Bard from campaign group the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) described to Westminster World how disabled people are running short of money half a week before their next payment. “People are often going without electricity and gas,” he said. “A lot of them are having to use food banks and there’s often reports of people giving the food back, saying they can’t actually use it because they don’t have any means of cooking it.”

Following lobbying by disabled people, a UN inquiry found the British government guilty of “grave” violations of disabled people’s human rights. Despite this the government continues to force disabled benefit claimants to attend new, distressing assessments. This month the Tories ignored an independent court tribunal, which declared Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) should be extended to people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties. Their U-turn came only weeks after one Tory minister said the mentally ill should not receive benefits because they are not “really disabled.”

Calling for their rights to be respected, disabled people took to the streets earlier this month. As they marched around Westminster, they shouted, “No more deaths from benefit cuts.” Their placards showed messages such as, “Welfare reforms are cuts that kill,” and “Hidden disability: don’t judge a book by its cover.”

At the march, one woman with bipolar disorder, Lota Rose, explained to Westminster World how she is struggling to look after herself and her child. She is waiting to be assessed for PIP and in the meantime she lives with her mother, a widow and a pensioner. Rose said, “My mum is right at the limit with what she can help us with already and there doesn’t seem to be any help in sight at all.” Rose added that she felt she was unlikely to get any support and believed that the extensions to PIPs would have changed that. “I’m at the beginning of the process here and it feels like I’m already fighting a sinking ship before it’s even begun.”

But it is not only the waiting that distresses benefit claimants, it is also the process of being assessed that concerns them. An MS Society survey found that 87 per cent of respondents find the PIP application stressful. Paula Peters from campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) revealed how her friend was asked if she had ‘an active suicide plan’ during her assessment. “If they say something like that to me I will turn round and say, “Yes I have and when I go home I’m going to act it out,”” said Peters, who is also waiting to be assessed. Hearing such stories of others’ experiences of PIP caused her so much stress that she nearly committed suicide. She was admitted to hospital and spent a month with Home Treatment, a means of support which helps avoid further hospital admissions. She said, “The fear of being assessed is like this for thousands of people who are waiting. We have the fear of the dreaded brown envelope.”

In addition to this, disabled people live in constant fear of losing their benefits. Bard said “People at the most severe and enduring end of the spectrum, who’d been with their community mental health teams for a long time, went in and were told they were going to be discharged.” Adjustments to disabled people’s benefits will leave 160,000 people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities without support. The extensions to PIP, suggested in the court tribunal, could have aided some of those people left to fend for themselves. Bard added, “We’ve seen many deaths. I believe that these new PIP cuts are going to really worsen that. People are in fear.”

As a result of the assessments, and the concurrent possibility of losing benefits, Peters claimed many disabled people are choosing not to apply for PIP. She has read comments people have written online, stating that they would rather go without assistance than go through the application process. “I think it’s designed to cause distress and harm so we don’t claim anything at all,” said Peters.

Despite disabled people’s grievances, Theresa May claimed in Prime Minister’s Questions, “Actually the Personal Independence Payment is better for people with mental health conditions.” She elaborated: “Two thirds of people with mental health conditions are claiming Personal Independence Payments. That two thirds compares to less than a quarter under the previous Disability Living Allowance arrangements.”

Peters and Bard told Westminster World that, although they will continue fighting for disabled people to be treated fairly, they feel they have already done everything they can. Peters said, “We’ve thrown everything we have at the Tory government. We’ve had protests, we’ve had petitions, we’ve lobbied mps, we’ve shared our stories with the media and they just move the goalposts for us all the time.” Bard explained, “We’re looking at the moment to mount another legal challenge on the PIP cuts. But these legal challenges are slow and, from our first experience, they don’t necessarily bring relief.”

Protesters held a banner reading “Tory cuts kill” [Photo: Blyth Brentnall CC/BY/SA]
The march revealed how frustrating it is for disabled activists to witness the ineffectiveness of their efforts. When the protesters arrived in front of the Houses of Parliament, they sat down in the middle of the road. Remaining there for one hour, they explained their plight to the police who persistently asked them to move on. While blocking the road, Peters, who was leading the march, broke down in tears, remembering her friends who have died as a result of benefit changes. Afterwards she recounted how difficult the march was for her, saying, “It was dreadfully traumatising for me because when we were down at Old Palace Yard and we were talking to mps I just felt like they didn’t want to listen to anything we had to say. That’s when I said to them, “Who’s listening to what we have to say?”

Similarly, Bard lamented the lack of attention their problems receive. He recalled how he and other activists had occupied the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament during Prime Minister’s Questions. “It only made the news because the BBC were told to stop filming,” he claimed. “We are staring into the abyss. We desperately need people to realise this and it’s difficult because the media underplays it or fails to report it. The charities fail to stress the seriousness of it, and it is left to a small group of disabled campaigners to organise demos,” said Bard.

Reflecting society’s apathy, the protest was small, composed of deaf people, some with mental health conditions, others in wheelchairs, and some with walking frames. Comments on the protest’s Facebook event showed that others would have attended were it not for financial constraints or mobility problems. Few at the march were not disabled. Ignored by the government, neglected by charities, and overlooked by the media, it seems that disabled people are isolated in their struggle, their concerns hidden from the general public, who are left in the dark about this pressing issue.