Could it be that somebody @DWP is listening at last?
IT’S EASY TO BE CYNICAL. My first response when I saw this tweet from DWP was to scream outrage at their blatant hypocrisy. After all, we’ve just read Bessie’s story courtesy of Frances Ryan in the Guardian, and last week 5 Quid for Life issued another two cheques to people who have had their benefits axed by the DWP despite medical evidence declaring them unfit for work.
There’s no two ways about it: the way the DWP treats people with mental health difficulties is outrageous, pulling the rug from under their feet when they’re at their most vulnerable — this is not the way a civilised society should be treating its weakest members.
But then I thought again: is this tweet hypocrisy or is it a sign that somebody at the DWP is in fact listening? I know from my own experience of claiming benefits during a three month spell of unemployment earlier this year that not everyone who works for the DWP is a heartless bean-counting bureaucrat: some of them really do want to help. They too have families and—just as easily as anyone else—they too could find themselves on the other side of their desks, demoralised, out of work and claiming benefits.
It’s a nightmare situation that none of us want to face, and it’s an even worse nightmare when your mind is skewered by anxiety, depression, self-doubt or other mental health disorders. What you need in that situation isn’t threats and sanctions, driving you deeper into despair: you need encouragement and support with clear lines of communication, someone you can turn to for help.
So that’s my answer to the DWP’s question: if you’re serious about working together to help people with mental health issues into employment, drop the bullying tactics. Put down the stick, bring on the carrot. Make time to work with people, to understand their difficulties, and provide the support they need.
Believe people. Listen. If someone doesn’t turn up for an appointment or doesn’t attend an interview, find out why. Don’t just turn to your computer screen and hit that button which churns out those impersonal letters you’re so fond of to tell someone their benefits are being stopped. Stop. Think. Make it personal: put yourself in their shoes. Write, phone or email: do all three if you have to. No reply? Get out from behind your desk, put your coat on and go pay a home visit. Think. Think again. Take a bunch of flowers or a food parcel if that’s what’s needed: show them you’re a friend, out to support them, not an enemy out to bring them down.
Yes, you’ll need safeguarding procedures in place, but that’s all part of what supporting people is about; and that, dear DWP people, is your bottom line: support. Not the budget. Not the economy. Support.
And yes, I know this is a sea change I’m calling for. But it’s the change you need to make, to turn the tide. You say you want to help people into employment: then restore their dignity instead of sweeping it away. Show people respect to help them regain their self-respect. Show people they’re worth something to society and they’ll want to contribute to that society; show them they’re worthless and all they’ll want to do is hide or die. In a simple sentence that I hope you’ll recognise, treat others the way you’d like them to treat you.
There are no guarantees, of course, and this isn’t the full story. Mental health difficulties can’t simply be overcome by positive thinking and cheering people on: the support needs to be ongoing and personal, in the workplace as well as on the way there. You’ll need to put comprehensive support structures in place for employers too. But make this your starting point and we’re in with a chance.
In the meantime, we’re still here at 5 Quid for Life to pick up the pieces when you get it wrong; but I’d much rather you made us unnecessary.
That’s my answer to the DWP’s question: what’s yours? Leave us a comment — and don’t forget to click through the link in their tweet to have your say in the consultation: