3. One Flew over the Benefits' Trap
A friend who was involved with Mind first told me about DIY Futures at a crucial juncture: the back-to-work programme in which I had been enrolled had come to an end and I was missing the support my advisor had given me. His view was that, given my anxiety levels, my best hope for work was to negotiate a gradual increase in my hours with my employer (who, to be fair, had stuck by me throughout these years); I would find it too stressful, he felt, to try alternative employment. But now I was faced with another Work Capability Assessment, at a time when I could barely manage the three-hours-a-week employment that I had already.
Fortunately it was very easy to enroll with DIY Futures and my mind was immediately put at rest when my DIY Futures advisor offered to accompany me to my WCA and take notes of the proceedings. She also spent several sessions helping me to prepare beforehand (something I would advise anyone facing a WCA to do): making notes of all the things about my health which I felt were relevant in case the doctor failed to ask (which is what happened the first time).
Consequently, when I went for my WCA this time things were very different. The examining doctor (a different one, fortunately) said that my advisor could take notes as long as they were only shared by the two of us; and I can’t help thinking that the difference between the two sessions can be explained to a great extent by the fact that someone was monitoring exactly what took place. I was able to tell the doctor how I felt about my previous experience and he certainly seemed to ask more relevant questions (no mention, for example, of my viewing habits)! At the end, he asked if there was anything else I felt was important and my DIY Futures advisor mentioned a couple of things that I had discussed with her but which I had forgotten because, after an hour, I was feeling overwhelmed by it all.
A couple of weeks later I heard that I could stay in the work-focused group. Now that the pressure of the WCA was off my shoulders, I felt able to work with my DIY Futures advisor on developing a more positive approach to my situation. This included her referring me to a free counselling service with a trainee, arranged through Mind. As a result of this help I was able, over the next year, to increase my working hours to the extent that, when I was told I had to attend another WCA, I felt strong enough to say...no thanks!
It’s not easy to manage financially without Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but working part-time means I get help with my rent and Council Tax and the loss of income is more than compensated for, I feel, by the gain in peace-of-mind that comes from escaping the destructive, blame-the-victim culture that has infected the way we treat people who have, through no fault of their own, a limited capability for work.
The recovery I have achieved so far has been won with the help of the primary care services – the continuous and consistent support of my GP and NHS counsellor, always there when I needed them – who showed me that the rabbit hole was not bottomless; with the help of my back-to-work advisor, who explained the system to me so that I could negotiate the strange bureaucratic Wonderland that is ESA; with the help of a sympathetic and supportive employer who repaid my twenty years’ service with their own loyalty to me; and last, but not least, with the help of DIY Futures and the Mind trainee counselling programme which have together enabled me, for now at least, to fly over the benefits trap!
PS: I know everyone does not get such good and consistent support – as I said at the beginning of my first blog, this is just one man’s experience of what happened when I fell down the well of depression – but I do know that we all need and deserve it. What we neither need nor deserve is the constant pressure of the Work Capability Assessments, accompanied by the sound-track of a media giving out the message that every application for help is written by a ‘benefit-scrounger.’
I accept that we need a fair system of assessing people’s needs and helping them back to work, if possible; but my own experience is that the current ‘reforms’ are not helping. I have what I hope are some constructive criticisms of the system and some suggestions for improving it – but they must await a future blog.