Tuesday 27 July 2010

Ease the Squeeze

Many of you will have seen Private Aron Shelton in the news: he lost his leg in an explosion in Afghanistan and came home determined to get on with his life. Being proud and self-reliant he readily volunteered the information to the Department of Work and Pensions that he had managed to rehabilitate himself to the point where he could walk 400 metres, albeit with great difficulty and in serious pain. The DWP promptly axed his Disability Living Allowance thus depriving him of funding for a small car which had been helping him regain his independence.

Private Shelton’s experience has a close parallel in the world of mental illness. Hafal has taken up the cases of a number of individuals who have lost benefits because of what they told the DWP. Like Private Shelton they have been committed to their recovery and have put a very positive gloss on their progress to date: typically they have spoken ambitiously and with confidence about getting and holding down employment while playing down the challenges still posed by significant symptoms of serious mental illness. In some cases and most distressingly these statements have not just been inspired by an optimistic outlook but by delusions resulting from their mental illness: most people with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia will recognise the “I can do anything” moments either in psychosis or in extreme upward mood swings. DWP staff are often unable to spot exaggerated or delusional statements and anyway their mind-set is, I suspect, to be guarding all the time against people exaggerating their disability rather than the reverse (and of course we all recognise that there are people prepared to be economical with the truth in order to secure benefits).

Now Hafal offers a positive message to people with serious mental illness about their prospects of getting into education and employment. Indeed we currently operate a large-scale “Short Steps” service, funded by the Lottery’s “Mental Health Matters” grant scheme, which has exceeded targets in getting people with serious mental illness back to work. However, we need to be careful not to encourage service users to report their ambitions and aspirational goals rather than their realistic present position to DWP. To this end we have incorporated advice on benefits and money, alongside the Short Steps message on employment, in a summer campaign we have called “Ease the Squeeze” – this campaign is relatively low-key and targeted directly on affected clients and families - unlike our flamboyant “Road to Recovery” events but equally important. More information about "Short Steps" here.

The new UK Government’s determination to redouble efforts to reduce the number of people on disability benefits is fair enough only if the revised tests distinguish properly between those who might reasonably go back to work and those for whom work is presently too much, too soon for them to handle, notwithstanding their honourable and courageous determination to contribute to society through employment.

Meanwhile I repeat Hafal's message to anybody with a serious mental illness who is negotiating with the DWP on benefits...


The best approach is to get help both from a benefits specialist like CAB and from an agency like Hafal which understands your illness - and you will need to involve your doctor.

Don't leave it to chance.