Recovery – looking beyond the individual
29th May 2018
In this feature mental health campaigner and ex social worker Chris Young explores the impact of a disabling society on wellbeing and recovery.
I recently visited a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen for some time. She’s had mental health problems throughout her life, attracting a variety of diagnoses ranging from shizoaffective disorder to bipolar.
I was struck by the amount of weight she’d lost – and she was clearly experiencing some stress and anxiety.
Over the past couple of years she’d been discharged from all community mental health services – for years she’d had access to a local drop in centre for people with mental health problems where she’d received support from staff and fellow service users alike; at home, she’d had regular input from a community psychiatric nurse supporting her with any issues with her medication; she’d received input from social services by way of direct payments, which meant she could purchase other supports, which, in her case, allowed her to attend groups at her local Mind.
Her only formal support now is her GP.
Like many, she was hit squarely between the eyes with the bedroom tax – the spare room subsidy – where a chunk of money was taken from her housing benefit to supposedly encourage her to find alternative, smaller accommodation. This meant their housing benefit was cut by 14%. If she’d had the misfortune of having 2 extra bedrooms, this would have been 25%.
Since there were no alternatives, this was a tax – pure and simple, which she supplemented with her disability benefits.
Obviously still very ill, she had her personal independence payment (PIP) stopped. She was asked to attend 2 interviews to reassess her entitlement. Since she’d had all her supports stopped, she had nobody to accompany her to these meetings. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) see someone’s ability to attend an interview without support as an indicator that they’re independent and, as such, ineligible for the benefit. Conversely, if they’d failed to attend the meeting, they would have had their benefits stopped. It’s an absolute Gordian knot of a problem. This meant further cuts to her other benefits.
I’m still trying to fathom how someone could have interviewed her without identifying she had a severe mental health problem.
This lovely person, who, in the past, we could describe as just about managing, has had their life devastated by swingeing austerity cuts. The person I remember as being a sociable soul – enjoying going to see local, upcoming bands and seeing friends, is now effectively housebound – alone for days, weeks and months on end.
Last year she used a food bank 4 times. I almost wept when she told me that normally she’d be allowed 3 visits – she seemed almost thrilled that she’d been afforded this extra, bonus visit. Each foodbank pack gives enough food for 3 days. This year she’s already used a food bank twice. It’s going to be a long year.
She’s not using the foodbank for the ‘complex reasons’ Westminster have told us about – this is state sponsored poverty, pure and simple.
What is Recovery?
With the dictionary definition of recovery, we can forgive the general public for thinking that ‘Recovery’ means cure.
If you’re a mental health professional or many a punter, however, you may see it as a positive word that describes the journey many of us are on; it’s a fluid thing that has no final destination. It recognises that, at times, our mental ill health can get the better of us whilst, at others, we can take complete control of the good ship ‘us’ and the sky’s the limit…
I could wax lyrical about how my recovery has involved walking around the edge of the U.K., highlighting the experiences of people with mental health problems – how my lovely wife, Ella, and I manage my dissociation by putting me in a darkened room with loud American cop shows – or how I’ve written a book about my experiences that’s been well received by many – punters and professionals alike.
I’ve headed up 4 major mental health campaigns, including the coastal walk, the #LetsWalkAMile campaign in conjunction with See Me Scotland, the Save Safe Haven campaign where we secured 80,000 pounds (my computer doesn’t have a pound sign!) to ensure the continued running of this valuable service and, more recently, the #FindMissWard campaign where we celebrated the support of my fabulous English teacher – not a mental health professional – galvanising my teenage belief that one day I’d be an author.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The erratic nature of my dissociation effectively renders me unemployable in the conventional, 9-5 world. Would you employ me once I’d told you I lose around a third of my time to my mental health problem?
Much of the work I do – talks – running workshops – writing pieces for a variety of organisations is free. Various organisations will contact me enthusiastically having read about my deeds of derring-do in mainstream and social media asking me to speak to/ with other people with a lived experience of mental ill health and/ or professionals, or students in schools or universities, or write pieces for their websites or magazines. I’m often met with, ‘Sorry, we don’t normally pay our speakers/ contributors, we’re a not for profit organisation’ or something similar when I try to negotiate a fee for my input. It’s bad news when I consider it a win when I secure basic expenses for my input. Thankfully though, this climate is gradually changing.
Neil Thompson tells us that discrimination occurs on 3 levels;
The Personal – our everyday face to face encounters and conversations with others – perhaps even personal responsibility – is where recovery resides. That said, we must also consider the self-stigma that lives within many of us – a result of living in a world that’s often less than welcoming to people with mental health problems.
The Cultural – including organisations like schools, Health Services, employers and the DWP. The negative beliefs and attitudes that often exist and are often propagated in these establishments – not through malice, but often as a result of massive ‘efficiency savings’, and / or the ignorance and fear that’s been pedalled in the past by the mainstream media, are often outside the realms of control of people with mental health problems.
The Structural – essentially the government institutions that have presided over the cuts that have devastated the lives of my friend, and countless others, that continue to punish vulnerable people for little more than existing.
In the current climate, there’s so much about recovery that is beyond our control. If we think about recovery without considering the impact of the disabling society around us, we’re doing everyone a disservice.
Buy your copy of ‘Walk A Mile – Tales of a Wandering Loon’