Sunday, 9 March 2014

White Rabbit Number Six: John Drake's Mental Health Blog - 2

2. I Am Not a Number

Going to the Job Centre when I was too ill to work seemed like a contradiction in terms – but this was the brave new world of New Labour and quite a lot had changed in the twenty years since I had last needed to claim any sort of state benefit, as I was soon to discover...

I will skate over the many mistakes that seemed designed to disorient me (the person on the end of the phone who told me that he couldn’t register me unless I could remember the postcode of the flat I lived in twelve years earlier – and then sent all my information to the wrong address anyway; the meeting in the open-plan Job Centre where I was asked how my depression affected me on a day-to-day level – as if my doctor would give me a consultation in the waiting room; the letter from the DWP telling me to send them a sick note by a date two months prior to the date of the letter)...

I realised that I had, in fact, fallen to the bottom of the rabbit hole and was now in Wonderland.

The good news was that I was referred to the government’s back-to-work programme. I was obliged to see an advisor for five sessions – and ended up seeing him every month for a year and a half because I found him so helpful. He did his best to make sense of the system for me... but there was still the hurdle of the Work Capability Assessment to be overcome.

I was interviewed by an elderly gentleman who I assumed was a retired GP. It was all over very quickly. He asked me some questions that seemed odd – such as what did I watch on TV? (Films and documentaries mostly, not that it’s anyone’s business) – but nothing at all about my symptoms, what had happened in work or what was stopping me going back.

To be honest, since I spent most of the 20 minutes I was there in floods of tears I assumed that he didn’t want to prolong the agony by asking unnecessary questions.

How wrong I was!

A month later I was told to attend a follow-up, work-focused interview, with the same doctor who assessed me the first time. He seemed surprised when I told him that I hadn’t received the results of that assessment yet, but said to put it down to bureaucratic bungling.

When another month went by and I still hadn’t got my result through I started to get very anxious and asked my advisor to help. He made a few phone calls and gave me the bad news. I hadn’t scored enough points to stay on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and I shouldn’t have been asked to attend the second interview.

A week later I got the official result through the post. The doctor had assessed me as finding life difficult due to being unable to cope with unexpected changes and had awarded me 6 points, 9 less than I needed to stay on ESA. I would no longer receive any benefits and had to talk to my employer about returning to work.

This “talk” had better be quick, since I now had no money coming in, but it was pointless anyway. There was no way my employers would allow me back to work without the say-so of my GP and there was no way she would pass me as fit for work... Desperately confused, I contacted my advisor who told me I should appeal since the decision was clearly wrong; and helped me draft the letter. At the worst, I would still get sickness benefit until it went to tribunal.

As it happened I didn’t need to go to tribunal because I got a phone call one day from someone who worked for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who, after going through each of the reasons why I thought the assessment was wrong, told me that the decision would be overturned. About a month later I was told officially that I had been placed in the work-focused group, my benefit was increased and I also got a hefty back-payment.

Now that I was starting to feel a bit better about my situation, my advisor came with me to meet with my employer and negotiated some part-time work that I could do while still claiming ESA.

A year went by before they wanted to re-assess me. By now, the back-to-work programme had come to an end and I was no longer in touch with the advisor. Worried about the new assessment, I started obsessing about what had gone wrong the first time. Why had the doctor only given me six points? Things were not helped by watching the remake of ‘The Prisoner’ on TV. Perhaps I was Number Six, prisoner of a bureaucratic bungle that had turned into a nightmare...

Fortunately, just at that point along came Do-It-Yourself Futures...

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