Six months ago, a series of personal and financial crises sent me even further into deep depression than I already was. The illness behind it all is hypothyroidism, a condition which, if not adequately treated leaves you exhausted, mentally and physically and unable to deal with life at its best let alone its worst.
If some idiot at my local Job Centre had not given me incorrect information, I might have already been claiming the benefits to which I was entitled and had my previous GP had not been so totally useless my condition might have been better treated and things would never have got that bad. At least I had the strength to go and demand a referral to an endocrinologist and then the energy to insist I saw someone fully trained who made a change in my medication.
When I did get the right information from the Citizens Advice Bureau, which was to apply for ESA, the benefit that has replaced Incapacity Benefit, I was still struggling to deal with daily life. Just applying for ESA is an unnecessarily stressful experience. As a result of the incorrect information I lost two months of benefit and help with my mortgage which could not be backdated because there is a limit to backdating any benefits regardless of the circumstances.
The main form that you are required to complete is designed with two situations in mind.
1. You are suffering from an illness that makes you physically unable to work. You have to describe in minute detail how this affects every aspect of your life and is quite intrusive and personal.
2. You are mentally incapacitated to the point that someone has to complete the form for you.
There is nothing in between. The form simply does not deal with the whole spectrum of mental illness around depression. I made some angry notes on the form to that effect, but they were just ignored.
At some time later two things will happen. You will get called for a medical interview and a 'job-related' interview. The medical interviews, in my area at least are subcontracted to a company called ATOS who employ so-called health professionals to conduct an assessment partially based on what you wrote on the form.
The remainder of the assessment is anything but personal. They have a computerised system with a series of check boxes which they complete without showing you which boxes they ticked. They do ask you questions and also add some detail based on what you say. The outcome is simple. The boxes result in a score. If you don't score high enough, you are disqualified from ESA. I would advise anyone going to one of these medicals to get help from anyone you can, and know what they are supposed to do. Then, if they don't conduct the medical assessment properly, make a formal complaint to ATOS themselves and to the DWP.
More of what to do in a moment if you are scored too low to stay on ESA.
The other interview is aimed at trying to get you back into a job if you don't have one. The Job Centre gave me a leaflet for an organisation called the Shaw Trust. The leaflet claimed that they could 'get you access to training' by which most people would assume that they actually had funds to do this. Wrong. They have lists of other organisations which may or may not be able to fund the training you need, but it is very limited. What I would need, IF I was well enough to return to work is some very specialised very focussed training in specific software languages that have become the lingua franca of website development in the last few years. The Job Centre had already denied me this, so I'm not hopeful.
Now you would think that you would get the medical interview out of the way to establish whether or not you really were fit for work rather than putting more stress on you by forcing you to attend the job related one. No, the system is arse about face, a situation even admitted by the Shaw Trust.
At one of the job-related sessions the interviewer told me fairly bluntly that people with depression frequently did not tick enough boxes to stay on ESA. Therefore the sessions that I went through with them are now pretty well pointless, because once you are on JSA (the current name for unemployment benefit) a whole load of different conditions apply as to what training you can get. And of course you are then required to start a new claim for JSA with a whole load of new forms, no getting away with just going from one benefit to the other.
Moreover, you are then taken away from the people who were just getting to know about you and what you needed to get back to work and shoved back into the JSA system which is so overloaded at present it can't cope anyway.
I wrote a few months ago about the farcical situation of the Government announcing 'training initiatives' which just don't materialise at the delivery point. I can tell you that, according to a friend trying to get appropriate training from the Job Centre, those funds still are not available where and when they are needed. Still pie in the sky then. This was the previous blog post.
The alternative, which I found today that I am going to have to go through, is the appeals procedure for ESA. It is another stressful and upsetting situation which is anything but helpful for someone not properly recovered from depression and still getting their system back in balance on new hypothyroid medication.
What concerns me most is that processing these forms will result in a lapse of my benefits and even if they are re-instated and backdated pending the appeal, I may be without any income at all for weeks.
When I saw my new GP a week ago, she said that it could take another six months before I get my medication levels completely right and really start to feel well again. At least she is prepared to listen to me and not just rely on blood tests - more box ticking which led to the decline in my health in the first place.
There are very severe shortcomings in the way that ESA is being administered and my fear is that people who have been treated for depressive illnesses are being thrown into this back-to-work system far too soon and may relapse, possibly dangerously.
Before the latest economic decline, we were told that Incapacity Benefit was being replaced by ESA with the aim of getting more people back into work. Well Ms Cooper (Yvette Cooper is the new Minister for Work and Pensions) Mr Brown, there are even fewer jobs now and even less resources to help you get one.
Perhaps you had better just quietly adjust those tick-box scores and let a few more people stay on ESA where they should be anyway.