Claiming Disability Benefits for Mental Health
I have always wanted to be in education or work, gaining experience and moving forward with my life. However, for me this hasn’t always been possible. I have claimed disability benefits since I was 18 due to my mental health conditions. I believe I have been met with more stigma for claiming benefits because I have a mental health condition than I would have if I had a physical health condition. I think this differential treatment is due to misconceptions around mental health.
When I first started claiming benefits, I found the benefits assessment questions to disadvantage those with mental health conditions. The vast majority of questions were based on what I was physically able to do, and there were comparatively few questions on what I could actually do given my conditions. For instance, there were a variety of questions on how far I can walk, whereas comparatively few on how often I could leave the house to be able to walk. I have been fortunate in that I have received benefits for a prolonged period of time. My mental health team argued I was not well enough to attend disability assessments, which was hugely helpful as this would have been a major barrier for me.
The primary problem I have had is communication with the DWP. Letters are sent through with complicated, indigestible information. When people are experiencing poor mental health, this is overwhelming. Trying to get hold of the DWP is challenging, with phone call queues regularly taking over an hour. There is a lack of independent services to help people with their claims, and personally I have never found a service who had capacity to help me. I have had letters informing me my benefits have been stopped, which precipitated a mental health crisis, only to discover the letter was a mistake. Further, I have had to fight for my benefits in a court appeal (which I won) but was still unable to access support with my appeal due to oversubscription. Without the support of my family, I would not have been able to do this.
I have also had problems with people denying I claim disability benefits. When you claim certain disability benefits you are entitled to free prescriptions. I attempted to collect my regular medication a few months ago when the pharmacist automatically tried to charge me without asking if I had exemptions. I explained I was exempt from paying because I received a qualifying disability benefit. The pharmacist proceeded to stare at, look irritated and ask – ‘but you are a student?’ (This was the university pharmacist). I stared blankly at her and answered ‘yes’. She then asked, ‘but how are you on disability benefits?’ There was a long gap, in which I proceeded to stare angrily at her, until she ticked the exemption box and I could leave. She knew I had a mental health condition because of the medication I collected. She has clearly decided mental health conditions do not qualify for disability benefits and disabled people do not attend university.
Believing those with mental health problems are less deserving of disability benefits fails to acknowledge the debilitating impact mental health can have. When someone is suffering from a mental health problem, they may be physically able to do tasks. However, mental health is just as preventative as physical health. When I was unwell I could not have a job or attend education. I struggled to carry out my basic needs and had prolonged periods where I could not leave the house. I was totally debilitated and required intensive care for my emotional and physical safety. Without benefits I would have been unfairly reliant on my family or would have attempted to get a job and inevitably been re-hospitalised. People with mental health problems are equally as deserving of support. Without the lifeline disability benefits provide for those with mental health problems, people’s conditions would deteriorate. The stigma surrounding claiming disability benefits is unhelpful. People feel ashamed for claiming what they are entitled to and embarrassed to speak up about the injustices they face.