Benefit Cuts Link To Mental Health Issues

Fear of brown envelopes is now familiar to anyone unlucky enough to be acquainted with Britain’s benefits system. For Sharon Linford, who has rapid cycling bipolar, as well as depression and borderline personality disorder, receiving a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) last month didn’t simply cause panic. It threw her into what she describes as a mental “spiral”.

The 48-year-old had had severe mental health problems since her early 20s when, as she was training to become an accountant, a nervous breakdown led her to spend three months in a psychiatric unit. Sharon’s made multiple suicide attempts over the years. Her wrists are covered in scars from self-harming.

“A single letter can have an impact on a person like Sharon,” her husband, Tony, says from their home just outside Great Yarmouth. “Whenever we see a brown envelope, my pulse quickens.”

Tony – who himself is on antidepressants – tells me he tries to “protect Sharon” from correspondence from the DWP. That’s not easy.

Both he and Sharon are too unwell to work (in 2013, Tony had a heart attack) and are on employment and support allowance, while Sharon’s been receiving disability living allowance (DLA) for almost 15 years. They use her benefits to help pay the rent.

When the latest letter from the department hit the doorstep five weeks ago, Tony, 58, read it for Sharon – all 12 pages – and summarised it out loud: she will soon no longer receive her DLA and instead have to apply for the government’s replacement, personal independence payments (PIP).

When they say ‘we might take your benefits’, I can’t cope,” Sharon says, quietly. “I went into psychosis.”

She pauses. “Tony should tell you. I can’t remember when I’m like that.”

“It was as if she lost contact with me and the world,” he explains. “She was rocking. She was hyperventilating. She kept moving her thumb from her palm and back again like she was soothing herself.”

The next few hours were a blur: Tony called 999, to ask for help, and then called Sharon’s sister to come to the house. Both of them stayed awake with Sharon until 2.30am the next morning. “She was inconsolable,” Tony says.

As an insight into how relentless the benefit system can be, when Tony explains to Sharon what her distress was like that night, she realises it reminds her of two years ago – when the DWP sent her to attend a work capability assessment in order to keep her out-of-work sickness benefit. “I was rocking back and forth then too,” she says. Over a month later and Sharon has stabilised but is still struggling. “I feel suicidal and Tony and my mum has to watch me,” she says.

What exactly has the DWP learned? The department is aware of the concern over benefit cuts on people’s mental health – that’s why it sent guidance to Jobcentre staff on how to deal with claimants who show a “suicidal intention” after losing their benefits. Mental health is complex but when it comes to the benefits system, increasingly, the need to not simplify a person’s distress is used not as a means to understand how to help them, but to overlook what’s really happening.

It’s been almost six months since researchers at the public health department at Liverpool University linked disability benefit tests to suicides and the prescription of antidepressants. The DWP say the report is “wholly misleading” and “no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect”. The DWP may soon be forced to disclose details of secret investigations into the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants, after campaigners last week won their appeal against its refusal to publish the information.

Words by Francis Ryan

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