Many of you have probably seen stories in the news about people with mental health struggles battling to get benefits; some of you may be fighting the battle right now.
Like most things I don’t think you can fully understand a problem until you live it, and in a way that is why challenging a decision by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) to stop my ESA benefits seemed something that I just had to do.
While I was successful with my appeal, the whole process highlighted some rather alarming issues; the main one for me was that the DWP seem to have no detailed knowledge of how mental health issues work, and that is scary because let’s remember, this is a government department that is tasked to try and help people!
To be honest I wasn’t expecting too much when I headed to Bedford Shire Hall for the tribunal; my previous experience with a tribunal had left me feeling disillusioned about the whole system. The good news was that this one would only last a couple of hours and would comprise of a judge and a doctor asking me questions about my appeal.
I won’t bore you with the details of the tribunal itself, instead I want to focus on the reasons I decided to appeal and why I was compelled to put myself through that sort of thing again.
It starts with how the DWP assesses mental health problems.
The system the DWP use to assess a person’s capability for work is based on the Employment & Support Allowance Regulations 2008 (just a bit out of date then) which are a list of criteria a person has to meet in order to be awarded the benefit.
An individual is awarded a score for each section and subsection. In order to qualify you have to score over 15 points.
There are two main parts of the regulations they look at:
Physical descriptors of the work capability assessment (schedule 2, part 1) – This is 10 areas which include mobilising (need for help or a aid such as a wheelchair), standing and sitting (needing physical assistance to move), reaching, picking things up and moving them, using your hands, speaking writing and typing (unaided), hearing or understanding messages, getting around safely (using an aid such as a guide dog), control of bladder and bowels or stoma, staying awake when conscious.
Mental, cognitive and intellectual function descriptors (schedule 2, part 2) – 7 areas including, learning how to do tasks, being aware of danger (everyday hazards such as boiling water), starting a task and finishing it to the end, coping with changes, coping with getting around on your own, dealing with other people, behaviour with other people.
The assessment includes the individual answering a capability for work questionnaire, and then attending a work capability assessment (if required).
The questionnaire is quite long, and while it is relatively straight forward there is not a lot of space to elaborate on your answers, and it can be quite tiring to complete.
Most of the questions have an option of three answers NO (I can’t do something), YES (I can do something), or IT VARIES (the grey area which seems to mean you can do something).
The assessment consists of a suitably qualified person sitting behind a computer asking a lot of closed questions which you try to answer as best you can while they are busy typing away. My favourite questions included; can you work a dishwasher? Can you use the Internet? If someone asked you for directions could you help them? (Maybe I should run away screaming and waving my arms in future).
Next, another person (who I never met) looks at both the questionnaire and the assessment report and makes a decision.
In my case I did not score any points, zero, nil, so they deemed me fit for work.
The problem I have with the DWP’s way of assessing someone with a mental health issue is that they do not seem to understand that the problem is different for each individual, so their generalised questionnaires are irrelevant and pretty useless.
They are probably fine for assessing a physical disability and the possible mental health issues associated with that disability. The fact that the whole part of schedule 2, part 1 has nothing to do with most mental health issues means that the chances of scoring points is heavily reduced.
In their report the DWP put great emphasis on the fact that I was well presented and pretty attentive during the work capability assessment; one of the big stigmas with mental health problems is people saying ‘you look well’. It made me wish that I had gone in there looking like a tramp, shaking and not focusing on their questions.
Their report made me feel terrible, and it had a big effect on my depression:
“Each activity is considered in the context of a modern work place.”
No they aren’t, they are based on what you can do at home or when you go out, they have nothing to do with work at all. What they failed to realise was that home is my safe place, and I am very careful about where I go and who I meet; avoidance is a big coping mechanism for me and I use it whenever I can (which is part of the problem).
If they asked; could you use a dishwasher at work, or use the Internet at work, the answers would have been very different because the association is different.
During the tribunal the doctor started asking questions about searching for work or getting a job; at this point I panicked, burst into tears and had to go and sit in the waiting room for 10 minutes before continuing.
“Mr Harris’ typical day history shows that he uses mobile phone to call and text, uses internet to do online shopping, uses washing machine at different settings, writes a blog, uses app to do online banking, does writing at home, drives a car, cooks safely, makes himself coffee and breakfast, takes his medicines daily, takes his dog for a walk daily and washes and dresses daily without prompting.”
“The HCP also stated that, although he stated problems with various descriptors in mental health, they are not consistent with typical day and mental state examination. Therefore significant disability is unlikely in all areas of mental health.”
This last bit floored me; are they saying there’s nothing wrong with me? Their report made me doubt my own sanity; maybe I’m making this all up; maybe there is nothing wrong with me……
Both the DWP and the tribunal were desperate to figure out what I could do on an average day; to be honest I wish I had average days; my days can change in the blink of an eye. Anxiety and depression do not work on logic and the law of averages.
A comment made by the doctor at the tribunal summed up the problem beautifully; he said that it appears as though the DWP decided that because I can do things like running marathons and writing a blog that they saw no reason why I couldn’t work; he went on to say (and the judge agreed) that they have never seen a case like mine where I am capable of doing some things but not others…..
Welcome to the world of mental health ladies and gentlemen.
The fact that the DWP did not even bother to send a representative to the tribunal maybe sums up how they really feel about people and their health and wellbeing. At no point has anyone from the DWP sat down with me and actually talked to me about my experiences, my triggers, and worst of all they never bothered to try and help me get back into work; they just sent a P45 and said get on with it……
I want to work, I push myself every day to get better, to challenge my anxiety and depression, but the DWP made me wonder, why bother? I felt as though I was being punished for making an effort.
So what is stopping me working, even stacking shelves at Tesco or watching a security camera (as the tribunal doctor suggested)? Thankfully I got the opportunity to explain this to the tribunal (maybe I’ll do a blog on it), and I think this went a long way to helping them understand my situation. Maybe if the DWP had done this it would have saved a lot of time, resources and stress.
I don’t really see the result as a victory as such, just a small step in the journey.
Thank you, thank you, thank yo