Enough of the shirkers rhetoric: people have reasons for needing support
Over the next week, we'll be running some of these interviews with people who have been on benefits for the longer-term. We get a little tired here of the writing off of people on benefits as shirkers or scroungers - the people George Osborne likes to think are tucked up in bed, sleeping a life off on benefits - and these pieces give some idea why people need ongoing support. Shorter versions of some of these interviews also appeared in the Guardian today.
Steve*, 54, Newcastle.
Just outside of Newcastle, I attend, as a friend, an Atos work capability assessment with Steve, a man in his mid-50s who I have known and been regularly in touch with for about a year.
Steve was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 18.
We meet for his WCA appointment at the sprawling concrete business park in which his local Atos assessment centre is housed. The building isn’t as tawdry and hard-to-access as some, although it hardly screams High-End Medical Centre. Harley Street it is not. There’s a reception window, a large, slightly shabby waiting-room filled with chairs and a couple of public toilets at the back.
Such is outsourced medical assessment for disability benefits in the millennium. The message is pretty clear the minute you enter one of these buildings. You may have multiple sclerosis, or arthritis, or cancer, or schizophrenia, or depression, but government is not inclined to stand on ceremony for you.
Steve knows all of this too well. He is a still, observant sort of character: shy, political, mature and affable and easy to talk to once he’s comfortable. He has been on a difficult road – in and out of care and outpatient clinics, part-time jobs, training, voluntary work, phases on benefits – for more than 30 years. He could do without the Tories making his final stretch the hardest, with their incessant blathering about “scroungers” and hardline view that anyone on social security is dross by definition.
“I tell people that I’m a member of society, but I feel on the fringes of it, as if I’m an outlaw.”
Steve has been taking the antipsychotic drug Sulpiride since he was diagnosed. He feels that the decades of medication have worn and slowed him down. He also suffers from severe depression. He says that some days, the drug-fog and depression mean that he struggles to get out of bed – not because he’s tucked up in bed behind “closed blinds, sleeping a life off on benefits,”, as George Osborne would fondly imagine, but because “I hallucinate [especially at night]…I see things like giant squid and things like that…I think I’m being eaten alive. The Sulpiride I take – it’s got quite bad side effects in that my limbs shake every night when I go to bed and keep me up half the night.”
Steve often says that he’d like a job (at the moment, he’s working as a volunteer at a mental health support charity), but he doubts that he’ll be chosen for one, especially in Newcastle as things stand. Unemployment rates in the northeast are among the country’s highest and: “I’m in my 50s. [There are] huge great holes in my CV which have been covered by little bits of volunteering. I’ve either worked part-time, or gone into full-time education, or been on training schemes, or been on the welfare state. The labelling [as someone with schizophrenia] stigmatises and discriminates against you in the minds of employers….as soon as they see your mental health history, you’re out.” Already – “the job centre treats you like something they found on their shoe.”
Not surprisingly, his most productive (to use a word our output-obsessed, striver-fixated political class would applaud) years were the ones when he received the most help.
The first of these constructive stages took place when he worked for his father after his schizophrenia diagnoses and early hospital admissions. “When I first got out of hospital, when I was 18, I was given a job by my dad, so that he could look after me day to day and see how I was doing.” The second good run came when he studied for an ecology degree at a university which offered him counselling. “The university, thank god, picked me up through student services and gave me counselling every week and gave me help to write essays. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have got my degree.”
Perhaps needless to say, things began to fall away as the support did. “I’ve rarely seen psychiatrists since 2004. It was a succession of different psychiatrists who just wanted to go back into the past – what medication I was on and so on.” Now, he says,, the local community mental health team is stretched to its limits and Steve’s behaviour is not viewed, he thinks, as serious enough for priority attention.
“The community mental health team is overwhelmed…I’m not as ill as others, I acknowledge that, but I do think that I need some help and I get very little. I’ve had to fight for what I’ve got so far, even when I’ve had a relapse and the police have been called.”
All he needs, he says, is “to see someone to talk to on a regular basis, just for motivation and reassurance. And to be able to have enough a personal budget to employ someone like a gardener and a cleaner, because I’m conscious of the fact that the neighbours have done most of the garden and I find mowing the lawn very hard – not just physically, but mentally – getting round to it and doing it. I’d also like a psychiatrist just sort of in the background in case things get worse.”
He’s been dreading his WCA. He knows the descriptors that Atos will use to judge his fitness for work and is concerned that they won’t cover the real impacts of his schizophrenia and depression.
So it proves.
The assessment is perfunctory. The room is small and forgettable – it’s bare, except for a desk, a computer, few mismatched chairs and, behind the chairs, a plain gurney. Steve and I sit in two chairs on one side of the desk. The assessor – a friendly-enough individual – sits behind the computer and directs a range of questions to Steve: “Did you get a lift here, or did you come on the train? (On the train). Tell me a bit about how you manage, getting up and dressed in the morning.” The assessor asks Steve to touch the tips of each of his fingers to his thumb. Then, he’s asked to lie on the gurney and to raise one leg and then the other. The whole test takes about 40 minutes.
It’s the vapidness of these tests that is their most striking feature. They are a snapshot of a person’s ability, on that day, to “behave” well enough and to perform basic tasks which an employer might – might – pay someone a small salary for. There’s almost nothing of the wider picture here – certainly little of the fluctuating nature of Steve’s mental health. Steve’s schizophrenia, his terrible depression, his hallucinations, his problems with sleeping, his patterns, his illnesses’ slow grinding down of him over the decades, his struggle to function and to keep his home clean without professional help – these truths are not priorities. Some days, he can cope with change, get about and cope with social engagement. Some days, he can’t.
He receives his final report several weeks later. He is awarded no points in his assessment and is told to apply for jobseekers’ allowance. He says that he plans to appeal.
Paul *, 55, Newcastle
Paul is thin, greying, chatty and, sometimes, a little jittery. The first time we meet, we sit for an hour or so in a small room in an old hospital building in Newcastle. Rain creeps down the windows and neither of us is looking forward to the moment when we must leave the warm building. So, we stretch out the chat.
Paul has brought a lot of paperwork and bags with him – he’s carrying folders, boxes crammed with papers and a couple of old Tesco shopping bags that are filled with plastic takeaway boxes.
We start by talking in a general way about housing (he lives in a council flat), benefits and his fears about the employment and support allowance application form that he expects to receive (the “brown envelope of death,” he calls it). Then, Paul says that he has something to show me.
He pulls an old notebook and a several crumpled photographs out of one of the folders, and passes them to me. The photos show the Tyne and Wear Bridge. A series of small crosses have been penned in black ink here and there on the photos.
Paul points to the crosses. “These show the places where people have jumped off the bridge,” he explains. “Here, here and here. That’s what is happening today.” He says that he has written the dates and times people when have jumped from the bridge in his notebook. “This is where I’m going, too,” he says. “I’ve had kids round the back of my house, hassling me and they destroyed my garden. I have been very psychotic for last few weeks.”
He says that he’s saved up several thousand Gabapentin and other pills to kill himself with. He opens one of the old Tesco shopping bags to show me the stash. It’s impressive. The plastic containers in the bags are crammed to bursting with huge yellow and white pills. Paul also brings out two enormous blister packs that are filled with tablets. He says that he’s getting all these on repeat prescription. The fact that he has this pile at all is the striking point. I have no idea if he will or won’t kill himself, but he’s certainly ready to if he decides to. At the very least, it’s clear that he hasn’t taken this medication for quite a while.
I think about this a month or two later when Iain Duncan Smith, via the ever-discerning Mail, blathers on again about punishing benefit claimants who use drugs and alcohol. Paul isn’t in that category, but cynic in me can picture IDS devising one for him. When the great day comes and the DWP starts testing buckets of piss each morning for evidence of claimant substance use or whatever it is they’ll be doing, I can just imagine that them hauling out a strip of modified litmus to catch out people who are supposed to be on drugs, but aren’t.
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