"I'm always worried people will come round and think, 'they've got big sofas', or, 'he even has a TV'. We actually got the couches from Freecycle."
Craig Hamilton is 39, lives in Manchester with his wife, and has plenty to worry about. According to figures published by The Methodist Church, every day between January 2009 and March 2014, an average of 100 claimants with proven psychological disorders received benefit sanctions, issued by Job Centre Plus. In other words, mentally people ill had their benefit money stopped in punishment for making mistakes. Craig is one, introduced to me by the mental health charity MIND.
When I visited his flat, he cleared a little space for me to sit, in a room he self-consciously admitted to being, "cluttered, a bit like my mind". It quickly became obvious why he was slightly nervous. "The thing I'm scared about, in doing this interview, is that's it's going to go out there and people are going to read it and think, 'look at him, he hasn't done X,Y, Z in ages'. I'd honestly love to get back to paying taxes, and get into work."
In 1996, just after his 21st birthday, Craig's then-girlfriend took him to hospital. Admitted for a three-day observation, it was another six months before he left, having been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. His problems remain profound, with symptoms like depression and anxiety affect his motivation and organisation.
Despite being unable to work due to the severity of his condition, welfare payments stopped for six weeks in November 2012 because he failed to attend a medical. While the system is supposed to help people like Craig, the bureaucracy surrounding it wasn't sympathetic to his condition. People with mental health difficulties are far more likely to receive sanctions that those with injuries or physical disabilities.
"Having mental health problems, at times I function well, but it can be hard to build up any routine", he told me. "When the letter came asking me to attend, I was living on my own, and it's easy to lose letters, dates – forget things. With a disjointed life I was unable to organise myself even to get support to attend a meeting. Some people would say it's my fault, but that organisation is difficult for me."
The sanction left him desperate and penniless during winter. To make matters worse it happened shortly before his wedding. "The form they sent was really, really horrible. I've actually started to help out at a food bank, because I didn't even know about food banks when I was sanctioned. I lived off a credit card, which is not good in the long run. In the end I actually got the money paid and backdated, but by then I was in debt on my credit card."
The stress felt by Craig at the time is obvious as he recounts the lengths he went to, to get the sanction overturned. "I remember phoning them up, begging. This was after the wedding. My mum was going for cancer treatment, my wife was still living in London, caring for her mum with alzheimer's, and had begun self-harming, which she had never done before. It was awful, a really bad time. I was literally begging them, explaining I needed money to travel, it took many calls, including someone from MIND getting on the phone, who helped me get re-assessed and get my benefits re-instated."
Last year, a series of reports showed care and support for mental health is chronically underfunded and under-resourced in England. 22 of 34 adult acute mental health trusts that responded to requests for information from Channel 4 News, said they had seen funding cut in the last two years, with 16 paring back crisis team budgets, and 18 reducing funding to community mental health teams. In November, MIND released statistics showing that local authorities spend just 1.36 per cent of their public health budgets on mental healthcare.
The government has recently announced an increase in mental health investment for 2015 to 2016. But, conflictingly, this pledge comes at a time when local authorities are being asked to make cuts that may impact on the provision of some mental health care and support.
"It's just becoming so much more difficult to get appointments", said Craig. "You hear Nick Clegg and Jeremy Hunt talking about improving mental health services... But I just don't know how they are going to do it whilst they are cutting. It doesn't seem to add up."
Craig told me that if he gets sanctioned again, he'll be prepared. He has a stash of tinned food, a constantly replenished stock of frozen meals he made earlier, and a clean credit card, so he wouldn't go hungry straight away. Nevertheless, you can't help but feel like mental health patients shouldn't have to horde things like they're preparing for a nuclear winter.
Kirsty McDonald from Stockport, just south of Manchester, had a similar experience to Craig's. She has her own house to show for ten years in a job where she ended up on £40,000 – a career that was ended by mental health problems. Extreme mood swings and difficulties controlling emotions meant that, after nine months of sick leave, she failed to return to work. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Disciplinary action began, and she lost her job in November 2011.
Last November she had her benefits sanctioned for non-attendance of an appointment. "I received £80 instead of £220," she told me. "My feeling is even if I didn't attend an appointment, I'm going to college three days a week, I'm in therapy one day a week, and was volunteering around four to five hours a week at a local football team. But if I hadn't attended one 15-minute appointment, they could still sanction me."
She insisted she was never informed about the appointment in writing, and following a lengthy battle, Kirsty finally managed to get the decision overturned and the money paid back. But she was left hanging in the mean time. "Luckily, I was able to prove they never gave me the appointment," she said. "Everything seems to have taken forever. From when I was sanctioned, it has taken them six weeks to pay the money they owed me, and they didn't seem to be taking much action on that until they saw I had spoken to the media. Everything was dragging."
That wasn't the only time she's had to fight against the system that's supposed to support her. After taking the DWP to a tribunal in 2013 to prove she was unfit to work – a case settled in her favour outside court – Kirsty was told she wouldn't need to return to work for at least 12 months, and has yet to be reassessed. Nevertheless, she has been placed in a Work Related Activities Group, designed to get people into employment quickly.
"They're basically putting people in that are the same sort of people social workers and psychiatrists are dealing with," she said. "From a mental health perspective, for instance, I've been in daycare today for my condition, I go a full day a week, and I'm with trained social workers who have experience. The people at the work programme have no knowledge of mental health, so even if you explain to them what your condition is they are still clueless, unless they have dealt with it in their personal lives."
Now five months into a treatment programme that should last for around another 19, doctors have already stated there's little chance she will be well enough to return to any job during that time, although there is some hope afterwards.
But she still needs to engage in pointless Work Related Activities, or face heavy penalties. "It was considered a work related activity when I was sent by the work programme on a six week NVQ Level 1 course in Health & Social Care, even though I don't want to do anything related and want to study towards social work. I still went, to make sure I ticked the boxes and wouldn't be sanctioned."
Kirsty's own efforts at self-improvement, meanwhile, are discounted. "At the moment, I am studying an access to higher eduction course and I've applied to do a social work degree in September, but that's not considered to be a work related activity, whereas the six week course that was never going to get me a job was."
Kirsty sees the situation as a "one size fits all process". But one size clearly does not fit all. With the stress of further sancitons looming if they slip up, what can be said for both Kirsty and Craig is that the toll taken on their mental health is as damaging as it is sadly ironic. "I know the services will be inundated, so what happens if I get sanctioned again?" asked Craig.
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