Telling people with anxiety they aren’t ‘really disabled’ is cruel but cutting their benefits is even crueller

This article describes suicidal ideation.

The often-repeated statistic that 1 in 4 adults will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime has undoubtedly improved people’s awareness of the prevalence of mental illness. But still, for many people, it is simply a statistic. It sparks a moment of reflection, but ultimately, the implications behind that statistic are inevitably replaced moments later by thoughts of deadlines and what to have for dinner. Personal stories of people’s struggles with mental illness on the other hand, give names and faces to these statistics. As a former welfare officer at my college, I have seen the power of personal testimonies in helping to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and it is with this in mind  that I decided to relate my own struggles with mental illness.

It was ninth week and I was an interview helper. I cheerfully greeted prospective applicants, trying to assuage their nerves as they arrived to face the heavily anticipated “Oxford interview”. I was surrounded by fellow interview helpers who were similarly cheery and all looking forward to the vacation and to Christmas. On the surface I appeared the same, but secretly, I was drowning. The suicidal thoughts I had been having since starting new medication for depression and anxiety, conditions I had been suffering from since the age of sixteen, were getting worse. I hadn’t eaten or slept properly for weeks. I couldn’t face my friends or even attempt the work I had been set for the vacation.

I woke up one morning after finally falling asleep in the early hours. I called 111, the NHS urgent care number. A woman with a South African accent answered my call. Her voice sounded clinical and monotonous as she took my name, my date of birth and my NHS number. Her demeanour changed, however, when I explained the reason for my call, “I want to take my own life.” Her voice became maternal and filled with concern. She reassured me before telling me to go to A and E immediately.

After staying under observation for what felt like an age at the hospital, during which I was asked to recall my entire psychological history to a stranger, the on call psychiatrist, I finally rang my mum. I told her, through sobs and tears, that I was at A and E but “I hadn’t done anything stupid.” I could feel the fear in her voice as she told me she could come down to Oxford straight away. Guilt and shame at the worry I had caused started to creep in. I told her, no, I was with a friend and I was being discharged.

At this point, my own story became one of recovery. I had a family who were there to give me unconditional love and practical support as I recovered. I had friends who sat with me when I called. I studied at an Oxford college that prioritised my health over my work, with staff that genuinely cared about my wellbeing. I was able to make appointments with my GP, afford my medication, and see a therapist. I had no financial obligations. I didn’t have a family or children to support.  For countless others, this simply isn’t the case.

The recent comments made by George Freeman, senior adviser to Theresa May, that disability benefits should only go to “really disabled people” and not those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety” hurt me on a personal level. They don’t correlate with my own personal experience of anxiety, of not being able to study for my degree, something I had worked incredibly hard for in a subject I had been passionate about. Yet, as much as Freeman’s comments fill me with anger, incredulity and despair at the inherent stigma that underlies them, I know that the less headline grabbing item behind these comments is far worse.

George Freeman, the MP whose recent comments have been criticised by mental health campaigners. Image: Policy Exchange

As Freeman made these comments he was defending plans to cut £3.7bn from personal independence payments (PIP). PIP was introduced in 2013 to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for new claimants aged 16 to 64. In a statement for The Independent, Anna Baird, a policy and research director, said that, “Life costs more if you’re disabled – on average £550 a month. PIP plays a vital role in helping disabled people meet some of those extra costs,” These extra costs often leave people with debilitating mental health illness facing poverty. Such links between poverty and mental health are undeniable. The Mental Health Foundation states that, ‘poverty increases the risk of mental health problems and can be both a casual factor and a consequence of mental ill health.’

Most people suffering from mental health problems already received the lower rates of DLA under the old system. Defenders of PIP argue it contains more explicit reference to mental health than DLA and that a greater proportion of PIP claims are now going to people with mental health problems. However, an independent report into PIP conducted by the mental health charity Mind argued that many people will struggle to qualify for PIP due to the raising of the threshold required to receive the benefit. Mind concluded that the introduction of the reforms as a means to save 20% of the DLA budget by 2015 meant it would be ‘difficult to have any faith in Government reassurances that the reforms would be principled.’

The most recent proposed cuts to PIP that Freeman has defended are set to affect 1,000 people who need help taking their medication and monitoring a health condition and a further 164,000 people who  struggle to leave their homes alone due to psychological stress, according to The Independent.

The Government’s approach to restrict financial support to only those with the most severe needs exposes what Theresa May’s supposed commitments to mental health really are: empty rhetoric. Cuts to funding set to further exacerbate the mental health crisis we are currently facing that not only overwhelmingly affects those of certain class but also gender, sexuality and race. Young women have been declared an ‘at risk’ group for developing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders. People from black and minority ethic groups are more likely to receive a poorer outcome from treatment for mental health problems. For people that identify as LGBTQ, the risk of developing mental health problems is also higher and they are more prone to suicidal thoughts and deliberate self-harm than heterosexual people.

For those people, like me, ‘taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety’, you are ‘really ill’ and you are ‘really disabled’. Anyone who tells you otherwise is cruel. But taking away vital funding for those in dire need, through cuts to benefits like PIP, is even crueller.