Struggling on Benefits
THE WELFARE REFORM
BILL 2009. A MENTAL HEALTH
Graham Morgan. December 2009
My name is Graham Morgan. I work with the
Highland users group or HUG for short.
Our job is to represent the views of people
with a mental illness in the Highlands and to reduce stigma and
It is an honour to talk at this meeting but I
do feel a bit of a fraud. I have worked for the last 18 years and
have only spent about three years of my life of benefits. However I
spend all of my working hours with our members who all have a
mental illness. I would guess that about 95% of the people I
work with are on benefits, mainly incapacity benefit. I hope that
through this knowledge I can represent the fears and views of those
friends of mine who are undoubtedly going to be affected by welfare
I could have researched this subject in much
more detail but I have chosen to talk from my own ignorance and the
ignorance of the people I live much of my life with and hopefully
then it will become more real.
At every meeting for the last couple of years
our members have been worrying about the changes that are coming.
They look at the UK governments’ statement that they want a million
of us off of benefit and back into work with blank incomprehension.
There’s this confused breathless statement of:
“So you want me to work do you? And how am I
to do that? Where are the jobs that we will walk into? How am I to
work when for much of the time I can’t face walking out the front
door? When my greatest achievement recently has been to actually
reach a drop in centres and have a friendly conversation? How do
you expect me who hasn’t worked for year on year to pick myself up
and find the skill the confidence and the health to change my life
around and work?” and you say that if you think I can actually work
despite being ill then my benefits eventually will be cut. How am I
to manage on even less money? And why is it that the poorest of us
face the biggest losses in the name of a healthy economy?”
Yes, I don’t understand and my friends don’t
understand and they are very frightened and very afraid of the
future and the reassurances they are given seem like the skim of a
very thin veneer that will fall away in no time at all.
We are suspicious and afraid and very worried
and it seems like every time we open the paper or turn on the telly
there is another story about benefit fraud and the cheats who seem
to have dedicated their lives to taking money from the hardworking
population just so they can live in idle luxury and I am so
confused here because when I look at my friends I see the hurt and
the guilt and you know deep in your heart that this cruel publicity
is nothing like the life of most of the people that I know and
admire in their struggle with life.
It makes me very, very angry to see the glee
with which a group of vulnerable and oppressed people are
victimised and pilloried it just, how do I explain it? It makes me
so angry to see good and decent people turned into ogres.
I knew I’d do this! I’m on a rant!
You must know how much medicals are dreaded by
our members? These regular reviews turn people’s hearts over in
dismay as their entire future seems to be being judged by a
faceless person they have never met before and who seems determined
to catch them out in how ill they really are.
Do you know what it is like to adjust to the
sudden drop in a tiny income when with almost no notice your
benefits are cut? There you are, struggling but managing, and then
what has taken years to adapt to and live on disappears and the
belt tightens again.
Have you any idea what it is like to be asked
to go back to work, when you know that however good our anti
discrimination legislation, is that stigma and suspicion and deeply
unhealthy practices are routine in the work place? You know, the
sort of stress and anxiety that made our members get ill in the
first place and yet despite this we are asked back into work.
I have to stop the anger and the ranting
because those words are so well known and so predictable.
What I want to talk about are two themes: one
is the difficulty of assessment when we are ill and the other is
the ways in which contribution is measured.
I’ll use myself as an example. I have a
diagnosis of schizophrenia and at present I am on the maximum
recommended dose of antipsychotic medication, I am also on
medication for depression and have an addiction problem. A year ago
I was just days away from being put on a compulsory treatment order
so unmanageable had my condition become. In many ways if I wished,
with this background, it would be easy to get myself signed up to a
whole raft of benefits, you know, become just a little less
confident a little less tidy, slightly less organised, a little
freer with the weird ideas I often have and there I would be,
“sitting pretty” as some would say. And yet I am in work and fully
intend to stay working I am living proof of all the statements that
work is good for you and that if only we could, we would work.
I am lucky, I have a superb workplace, when I
am ill I am very ill but in between times I tend to stay very well.
I have a lifestyle and support from friends and colleagues that
keep my world structured, happy and well able to work and
contribute that’s me lucky lucky me! I wish my friends were so
When I spent my three years on benefits, it
didn’t even occur to me that I could get any health related
benefits but there was no way that I could work. In those days I
had a diagnosis of personality disorder which hardly even counted
as an illness. At that time my world was a dark, sad and lonely
place. It was a great struggle to speak, it was hard to get out of
bed everything was hard to do except the being miserable bit the
easy bit was razor blades and the soft skin of the insides of my
wrists, the hard bits were paying the bills or doing anything
sensible and organised. Getting it together to work was beyond my
I had many people who were happy to tell me to
pull myself together and stop scrounging off the state but it made
no difference. Sticking me in work would have been a recipe for
And so I pause, imagine I am being assessed
today , frequent psychotic episodes and clinical depression then,
yup, I am sure that it wouldn’t be that difficult to get benefits
and then imagine my younger self is being assessed ; little sign of
illness but says he’s miserable and can’t work I think nowadays I
would be packed off to work as soon as the words left my lips and
that’s my point: being fit for work depends on so much more than
the clinical symptoms, it depends on your attitude, your wellbeing,
your support structures, the culture you are a part of and when we
see all this, when we acknowledge that despair whether it is a
formal illness or a state of being can stop you working then we
have to think what this is all about and why it is doctors at all
who assess our ability to work.
So, first of all, being capable and willing to
work is very much a state of mind and not being in the state of
mind that allows you to work needs to be acknowledged and catered
for with humanity.
Secondly, why all this emphasis on work as the
measure of our value and worth? Is the only way in which we
contribute to be measured by the wage that we are paid?
I often think that despite my desperate desire
to work and to contribute in this way that when I sit down and look
back on my life it will be family and friends and the society that
I am part of that I will remember most.
In my mind a hug that takes away the unease of
a horrible day, a text to cheer someone up, making someone’s tea
for them, washing their clothes, writing a love letter, listening
to a friend read a poem. Being there for someone whose heart is
filled with sadness. Having a conversation with someone who
hasn’t spoken to another person in ages, taking a neighbours dog
for a walk, building a piece of furniture cooking a meal for a
crowd of friends , picking up the phone to talk to family, making a
garden glow with the health of a host of flowers. All these things
are the things that stick in our memories. These are the measure of
how we contribute to society. These are the capital that make up
our culture and none of them are work and none of them are rewarded
with money but without them we would all collapse and the joy of
our world would be lost and the point of work lose all its meaning.
So why are we caught on getting everyone into work.
Why can’t we celebrate the host of ways
everyone contributes to our world? Some of us are lucky enough to
get paid for our contribution but many of us contribute to the
community we are a part of every day for no particular reward. We
may do it by being pleasant to those around us, by allowing someone
the privilege of looking after us, by giving someone a kiss or more
formally through voluntary work. So for all those people who
contribute despite being ill and sad for all those who contribute
by sharing their humanity with us why is it so desperately
important to get them into paid work? It may be great to make sure
that the shops shelves look great for the customers to buy their
weekly groceries but it is also just as great to bring up a child
well, to look after a partner and to celebrate friends and the host
of acquaintances of our community. It is great to celebrate our
common humanity and the gift we give the world by just managing to
live rather than to boil everything down to the profit we can make
for a business or the savings we can create by putting people into
work that they possibly can’t manage or don’t want. Yes, for those
of us who want to work, give us every opportunity to do so but
don’t demonise those of us who, for whatever reason, are no longer
able to work.
I’ll finish with a couple of examples to rid
myself at the indignation I feel about the way all this reform is
In HUG we provide mental health awareness
training to all sorts of people. This training relies on a group of
HUG volunteers to have any chance of success. It is always
evaluated excellently. Periodically we ask these volunteers who are
nearly all unemployed if we should pay them and they always say
‘no’ and one of the reasons they give is that they don’t want to
demean what they do by putting a price on what they give. We have
people who travel for six hours to do work with us, they are also
on benefits and do not claim any expenses because they would prefer
the money stayed with HUG. We have people who get paid £300 pound a
day for work they have been commissioned to do but because the
benefits system is so inflexible they don’t take the money instead
they do the work and donate it to us.
These are the frauds and the cheats and the
idle layabouts who if they just got off their arses could
contribute properly to society. This is the reason I am so fed up
with welfare reform.
I’ll finish by thanking the hug members on
whose behalf I spoke. Their desire to change the world and make it
a better place for other people is what inspires me. The fact that
they speak out and give of themselves daily despite horrendous
lives and sometimes terrible poverty are the reason I have hope and
know that changing our world means a great deal more than making
everyone work. That is just silliness
(Highlands User Group)