(Not) Coping with the ESA assessment process

This is a guest post from @IHaveaBoomstick, used with permission.

 

This morning two large envelopes from the ESA dropped through my door. One for me, one for my Mum. There they still sit, waiting for Mum to come home.  I am simply too stressed, too afraid, and too afraid of being stressed by them to open them until she gets home.  You see, I’m one of the many sufferers of a mental illness who’ve been somehow targeted by the government as part of their budget cutting process and put through the ATOS-led ESA assessment process.

From February to May this year I was filling out their poorly-designed forms, paying for GP support letters, being refused a letter from East Bristol Mental Health Trust because they stopped treating me in 2008 (referring me back to the GP as no more they could do) and reckoned “the GP can do it,” realising how flagrantly ill-equipped their ‘classification’ system is to cope with mental illness, trying to explain to numerous ESA advisors (or one with a rotating name) how WRAG is a joke and will create massive stress for people like me while serving no purpose, being put into WRAG, having them forget to review it, having them review it and stick by the decision while simultaneously sending me through their own assessors report clearly stating this person is unfit for work for at least 2 years if not more (alongside all the medical reports), chasing the Employment Service about my WRAG appointment, chasing legal aid people only to find out that the system in England is such a mess compared to Scotland that they won’t even represent you at an appeal tribunal …

… well, it’s fair to say that for someone with a chemical imbalance in the brain that fails to regulate stress and anxiety and suffers from major obsessive thinking, mental exhaustion, some depression, some paranoia and all the other things associated with an anxiety disorder it was not fun. Without the support of My Mum who organised and chased the case (herself a working pensioner) I would have utterly crumpled. As it was, it triggered an anxiety spell so major that I took months to fully recover from it. And, as someone who is also a diabetic, the stress dropped my resistance to illness so low that the GPs believe I became ill repeated times as a result.

Then, after sending the written appeal 5 months ago and the Employment Service backing off, it all went silent …

… until the envelopes dropped through my letter box. I’ve not even opened them. Yet, as someone whose disorder needs little to trigger it, they’ve pressed all the buttons anyway.

 

The following is what I tweeted this morning in response – it gets a little sweary and occasionally rambling. But it’s how I feel.  This has been edited to be more reader-friendly.  140 character restrictions make for jerky reading.

My mum and I both had two big letters from DWP drop through the door. Probably another ESA appeal failure. Not going to open it. Already stressing me.

It’s been months and months so I am guessing it’s the written appeal verdict.  Mum took over dealing with it as I pretty much blew a mental fuse.  All one massive disorder trigger. They couldn’t seem to ‘get’ that going there once a month and being judged unfit for at least two years was still both a pointless verdict and actually stressful. I can’t tell WHAT I’m going to be like day-to-day, without having a monthly appointment to stress me

Two big envelopes, one for me and one for Mum.  I’m tensing up now and I haven’t even looked at it yet.  It has just made me immediately mentally tense up so I have no choice but to avoid it and let Mum check it later.

It was the attitude of one of them on the phone saying “what’s the problem, you’re in the same category as cancer patients,” that really upset me.  They’re not quite getting that their whole category system is fucked and cancer patients with no chance of recovery should no more be expected to turn up to monthly appointments which have no purpose whatever then me. They don’t get that a disorder fuelled by having a chemical imbalance which means my stress regulation is f*cked means putting me in a situation like that on a monthly basis is not only likely to kick me off but also damaging in general.  It makes me very angry.   This is a joke system.  Let alone people far worse off and less functional then me still being expected to do it. It isn’t just those people being deemed fit being screwed over by this ridiculous assessment system, but the people further down the ladder being screwed over with pointless stress and discomfort as well, given needless hoops to jump through even when the system acknowledges they’re ill!

 

Ok, let’s treat you to some comedy from the Government. There are 3 benefit groups with ESA – first is “Limited Capability to work.” At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘Support’ group for those people for whom getting back to work probably is never going to happen AND SUPPOSEDLY for if “it is decided that you have a limited capability for work-related activity.” Now here comes the middle group: the “work-related activity group.” This is for all those deemed not well enough to do some work but not fucked enough to count as having “a limited capability for work-related activity.” Said activity being appointments where a back-to-work plan is figured out and you have monthly appointments with an adviser.

Unfortunately EVERYONE is being put in that middle group. Getting into the support group? Impossible.  Suffering from a progressive disease and consequently your death can reasonably be expected within six months – work-related activity group.  So if you’re probably going to die within 6 months? – you’re still expected to attend appointments planning to get you a job. Have a mental disability where you can’t cope for days/weeks at a time, is random when it hits, random when it goes and the NHS have TOLD  you that there’s nothing the psychiatrists can do and medication is barely effective and it ain’t getting better? – work-related activity group.

Now the WRA group says: You cannot be required, as part of a work related activity, to apply for a job, undertake paid work or voluntary work, or undergo medical treatment.  And then it has a “personal adviser who will try to help you back into work.” So, no pressure apart from this member of staff whose job description is to pressure. And, according to many, the whole scheme has incentives for employees to get bonuses by getting people back to work. Which doesn’t encourage pressure at all, I’m sure.

The Jobcentre staff themselves? Not their fault whatsoever. The Government, DWP and ATOS have made a glaring fuck-up of contradictory terms in the categories for people, making the support category too hard to be placed into EVEN FOR THE TERMINALLY ILL!!! And thousands of people who, like me, have serious mental illness, physical illness or disabilities fall between the cracks and get screwed.  Thousands of people who aren’t utterly fucked but are not likely to be work-fit functional indefinitely/forever are hounded, harassed and frankly f*cking TERRIFIED that they’ll be forced back into situations that caused some of them to become ill and/or lose control of their disability to begin with

My life is now about balance and routine, trying to avoid stress, input, any mental stimulation that’ll trigger me off. It’s not great and even with that control it doesn’t work well and I regularly have ‘events’ that pretty much consign me to my room for days/wks. But I’ve fought to get that level of stability. I’m unable to work because of it, rarely go out because of it, rarely socialise due to it.  I have gone through the GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, meds etc. and after all of it have found this equilibrium for managing day to day.  So when the DWP and ATOS try to fuck that over and give me ½ a page of A4 to respond while ignoring ALL medical evidence, including that of their own f*cking assessor? That, my friends, is a system that is utterly, utterly screwed and will get no better atm. Rant over.

 

If it wasn’t for the fact that I live back at home with Mum and she was supporting me, I’d have been in real trouble I think.  DWP has been quiet for 3-5 months and just that one unopened letter this morning has pressed the buttons. Thing is, they don’t get the complexity of mental illnesses. Due to the nature of mine, I spent years massively damaging my health pushing myself through university and then working for 7yrs because not only didn’t I understand it but I’d got into the mind-set of “it’s all in my head” and used that as a real obsessive trigger. So whenever this kicks off with places like them, I immediately start questioning myself: “is it that bad?,” “you worked with it before” etc. etc. despite EVERYTHING I’ve been through medically with the psychiatrists & GPs since. It’s a mental illness and they just trigger it with their actions even more. I think people in general don’t realise how much many of us manage to f*ck ourselves up mentally before we get diagnosed

 

Ironically that rant will/is probably going to contribute to a spell kicking off and me needing to step away for a bit. 100% worth it.  It took me months to recover from the stress of all this at the start of the year, and one unopened letter is enough to spin me out again.  This is why a lot of people don’t fight it. It is exhausting. Without my parent supporting me, I’d just have meekly let it go.  Whole system is screwed.  Irony is I could open the envelope and it’ll say “appeal won, yay” but I’m just too stressed to do it.

 

The telephone advisor’s words are a bit more difficult to post, though my mum and I were so surprised by their attitude that we felt like recording future conversations just to be sure we didn’t imagine it!

 

I have no problems with clamping down on people cheating the system but the way the categories are judged is purely to deny people access to the support group and I would guess to massage the figures hugely.

The whole process is a rushed job. And a money-maker for the government. They may pay ATOS but they changed regulations so you don’t officially need a GP letter of support. Which means the Government don’t have to pay for one as in the past but, if you don’t get one yourself, they won’t check any details with your GP or hospital etc. it seems. And given the amount of panic there is about being assessed and the knowledge now that the system is so terrible, people being assessed feel getting a letter of support is essential. So you pay the £15+ for it. Which goes back into the NHS coffers no doubt, and then seems to be completely disregarded anyway.

 

So my mum is home, and the envelopes are opened. It’s the appeal papers and the answers DWP/ATOS are giving at it. I’m letting Mum read it first as it’s liable to send me off the deep end again but her initial glance through suggests that, yet again, they’re rigidly sticking by their point-based system whilst completely ignoring medical evidence and what was actually written down. Sad thing is, don’t think we can easily get someone to represent me at the tribunal. Unlike Scotland, legal aid here only gives you brief phone advice on if you have a case but won’t represent you.

 

Ok, I’ve read through their ‘side’ of the case. Basically they’re saying, “by our descriptors, we’ve done nothing wrong” and they’re heavily quoting legal cases. Very much seems as though they’re so intent on going by their points-based descriptor system that they ignore what the person is TELLING them. Joke.

I am not very confident at all to be honest. We’re a working-class family.  We don’t know the legal system and someone who does is unavailable/unaffordable here.  Also humorous how they’re quite happy to find their own medical report from 8 years ago but not pay for one from my GP or psychiatry team. This has moved beyond equal, fair treatment now. To me, this just looks like they want to enforce their system regardless of the person.

No allowance for the fact that “your descriptors are f*cked.”  And actually state a legal case in their appeal to make a point that “in this case, something MIGHT happen isn’t good enough.”  Um, your monthly appointments blowing my stress levels through the roof? That WILL happen. But my testimony due to 15+ years of experience as a sufferer clearly isn’t enough as evidence. Tbh, if all this doesn’t work out, I’d imagine the first person I see for this WRAG thing is going to throw their hands up in despair. And now I’m wound up again.

I can only pray that the tribunal actually takes the time to read everything. But I doubt they will. No-one else on that side has so far.  Sorry for all this ranting folks – it’s just that it feels like all the stress from April that was put on hold has come back.  It is just so depressing. Attending monthly WRAG meetings is both pointless given my future diagnosis and is likely to actively aggravate my disorder. How is that so difficult for them to see and allow for?

Only hope is reading that the tribunal is independent of DWP.  I hate Mum getting stressed about going there but not sure I’d be much use tbh. And if I went there and was present? Can guarantee that the stress would retroactively trigger a spell that’d floor me for weeks. Can’t bloody win.

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One thought on “(Not) Coping with the ESA assessment process

  1. Pingback: (Not) Coping with the ESA assessment process | Mental Health, Politics and LGBT issues | Scoop.it

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