Tasneem Clarke, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Mental health and the benefits assault course

Staying on top of your money is hard work. It takes effort, concentration and know-how to find a decent job, stay within a budget, and shop around to stretch your money. But sometimes hard work is just not enough to keep your head above water, particularly if you have a disability, like a serious mental health problem.

“My health affected my ability to do my job, and I had to downgrade my post … this then reduced my income substantially… I’ve never not paid anything on time but I have gone without food.”

Luckily as a society we have created a safety net for these hard times: the welfare system. However, sometimes accessing this crucial support is not straightforward.

Even as a seasoned social worker, the thought of gathering all the necessary information for a long, complicated benefits form makes my heart sink. Then there are the potential hurdles of travelling to a public office, disclosing very personal details to a stranger, and being prepared to respond quickly to phone calls and letters once the application is under way. Our recent research showed how each of these challenges can be even harder if you have a mental health problem.

Extra hurdles

Many mental health conditions can cause changes to our brain’s processing ability, making it harder to concentrate or answer probing questions. Memory can also be affected, making it difficult to remember deadlines, appointment times, or just what you wanted to say.

“I let a claim for child tax credits lapse due to my confusion. I’ve been living off a very low income and selling personal items to get by.”

Some conditions can make planning and decision making harder, even if it’s just deciding to make a claim, or planning a route to the job centre. Others can affect our reactions and understanding of social situations. It’s not an excuse to be rude, but if you misunderstand a situation, or swear in frustration because your inhibitions are reduced, it’s not likely to help your chances of a successful application!

Anxiety or paranoia can make particular types of communication impossible, and you may need other alternatives like communications by email, post, or the help of a friend. If you believe your problems are insurmountable and are feeling like ending your life, you are unlikely to place a high priority on responding to a letter about a missed appointment.

“You need the money to get by… but you really just want to tell them to go away & leave you alone!”

The system isn't working

Mental and physical conditions aren’t always treated equally within the benefits system, partly because mental health problems are often invisible and fluctuate over time – making them harder to assess.

“I was in hospital and too unwell [to attend my appointments] then once feeling better they didn’t understand that my condition varies from day to day…The day I attended the interview was a good day and although I said the condition was variable … because I could walk and converse with them I scored nil points.”

Our research shows that people with mental health problems are also likely to find it harder to get through the application, assessment and appeals processes. Up to four out of five cases where someone was denied disability benefits are overturned on appeal. With so many incorrect decisions being made, it is clear that people’s needs are not always easily recognised within the system. This is likely to be particularly true if their emotional, practical and cognitive ability to make their voice heard is compromised. Ironically, the mental health problems that cause people to need support are often the very thing that makes it so hard to access.

“My head is like a small room packed full of paperwork and post it notes that have all been mixed up and have no filing cabinets or space to sort it out… I can’t seem to arrange any of it into some sort of order and my memory is very bad… anything I need to remember just gets lost in the mess.”

Levelling the playing field

The good news is that the extra challenges faced by people with mental health problems could be tackled through simple adjustments like staff training, allowing a range of communication methods and providing extra time and support for completing forms. This could make the system more efficient by reducing mistakes, and help people stuck in the quagmire of applications and appeals.

The new government, whoever they may be, must bear in mind the needs of people with mental health problems – who face the triple disadvantage of increased risk of financial difficulty, having their needs poorly recognised within the system and facing additional hurdles when navigating it. Making the system more responsive to their needs seems like a good starting point to confronting this inequality.