Ayaz Manji, Policy and Campaigns Officer, Mind

Navigating the benefits system during a mental health crisis

When you first become unwell it can sometimes feel hard to hang on to any sense of stability. I work in Mind’s policy and campaigns team and hear every week from people who struggle to focus on their mental health because of the things they need to do to receive financial support.

Rebecca’s story

A few weeks ago I spoke to Rebecca who experienced a mental health crisis while at work. Within a few weeks she had gone from organising events in cities across the world, to taking sick leave and eventually falling out of work. With no money coming in and a month’s worth of childcare bills left to pay, she made a claim to Universal Credit, not knowing what to expect. She told me about her first appointment at the Jobcentre, at a time when she still felt too unwell to leave the house:

“They didn’t seem to have any understanding that I wasn’t well. They would change my appointments at a moments notice and borderline harass me to attend meetings even though my GP had provided me a sick note for several months at a time. Because of the stress of it all my step dad had to become my appointee and deal with them because it was making me more ill.”

Rebecca was required to spend thirty-five hours a week searching for work, at a time when she was still experiencing panic attacks whenever she went out in public. She told me about feeling unable to cope with appointments in a busy and noisy open-plan office, and said that she didn’t know how she would have kept going without help from her crisis team and her support worker.

One of the things she found most frustrating about her experiences is that she’s badly wanted to be well enough to return to work. She initially thought that she might get some of the support that she needed from her Jobcentre, but her experiences of navigating the system while in crisis has changed her mind:

“In principle Universal Credit sounds like a good idea and I support the aim of making things simpler – but my experience was going from self-sufficiency and independence to being dependent on others to advocate for me, and being unable to do things for myself.”

Time to focus on recovery

We know that stories like Rebecca’s aren’t unusual, and that they aren’t just limited to the benefits system. Money and Mental Health’s latest report shines a light on the experiences of the 23,000 people in England alone who struggled with problem debt while in hospital for their mental health. Most importantly it sets out practical changes that would give people enough time and space to focus on what’s most important, their own health and recovery.  

One of the recommendations in the report is about making a change to the way Universal Credit works, so that people who are experiencing a mental health crisis won’t risk having their benefits stopped if they can’t make it to an appointment at a Jobcentre. It’s a simple change, but one that would have a huge impact on thousands of people in Rebecca’s situation. It’s something we strongly support, and will continue to campaign on as Universal Credit rolls out across the UK.

When you’re too unwell to work, help from the benefits system can be one of the things that helps get you back on your feet and give you control over your own life. We need to see the Government take action to make that a reality for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis.