Friday, 8 April 2016

The WCA, my Recovery and Me

I've had a substantial period of relative stability. As with any path to long term recovery, I have had ups and downs as well as adjusting the direction of my life to managing my condition on a daily basis. Compared to three years ago, I have been doing really well, until...

Life happens to us all, bereavements, the day to day grind to manage income over outgoings. In addition I have to manage my reactions emotionally. It helps if I can plan my life and build routines to support my physical as well as my emotional health. Those are the skills I have had to learn through intensive DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy)and those are the skills which have helped me manage the cycles of despair, self destructive behaviour and recovery. It was going well, until...

One of the most difficult aspects of life to manage when I am emotionally unstable is my finances. It is essential that I don't restart the spiral into debt which marked most of my adult life. I need to be able plan and to know well in advance if I am likely to lose any income so I can make the necessary adjustments. Perhaps, emotionally, I need more notice than most, I don't react well to change of any kind. So, any changes are highly destabilising. Through hard work and with the support of debt charities and the Citizens Advice Bureau, I have managed to get to a level of financial equilibrium even though my income is the least I have ever had in my life. Until...

Everything suddenly was thrown into disarray by the arrival of a white envelope which contained my Work Capability Assessment form. Suddenly, all my anxiety symptoms came rushing back. I had a full blown panic attack. Why such a reaction? I don't think anyone can understand the cumulative impact of all the rhetoric and talk about 'workers and shirkers' unless they have been involved in the realities of the so called 'welfare reforms'. The current political and economic culture casts me in the role of someone who is a drain on society. Despite having worked and 'paid' into the system for over thirty years, I feel guilty for being so ill, for so long.

Filling in the form itself, involves making sure I detail the impact of my condition on me. It means revisiting the worst times of my life, reinforcing the sense of me being a condition rather than a person. It reminds of the limits my condition places on my life, it reinforces the sense of being 'less than' everyone 'normal' and confirms that I am worthless as a person able to contribute to the wider community. This process of form filling was made worse by the fact that I had begun to volunteer on a regular basis and was rebuilding my self confidence, only to be reminded (by myself) of how far from 'normal' I am. I needed to get the form posted and away from me as quickly as I could. I was given a deadline of 18th March to return the form by and posted it on 4th March. If that had been the end of the WCA form, it would have been okay, but it wasn't.

On 11th March I suffered an emotional crisis triggered by another letter, which threatened me with losing my benefits because they had not received my form. It wasn't due until 18th March - the impact of the letter was compounded by the fact that in the past when I was in significant levels of debt I received similar 'threatening' legalese letters from debt collection companies. There was no phone number on the letter where I could query the non arrival of my form (along with significant amounts of reports and medical evidence). I had to phone the Job Centre Plus phone number. I had to wait 20-25 minutes before reaching a human being. The phone system is automated and it is not immediately clear that it is the right place for WCA queries. By the time my call was answered I was sobbing and distraught. Any ability to use my 'Wise Mind' skills had long since been overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, panic and an increasing sense of injustice. The person at the other end, was unable to help me and pointed out that the system was showing that they had not received my form. As I had returned it on 4th March, this increased my distress. I asked what I was supposed to do? 'Send in a duplicate'. She dictated an address. 'That is different from the one on this letter'. 'Yes, now that you have failed to return the form on time, it needs to go for adjudication and you need to explain why it is late.' My mind spiralled, it wasn't late, I still had nine days to go until the deadline. She then explained that depending on whether my reasons were 'acceptable' I may have my benefits stopped. By the time I came off the phone I was completely out of control emotionally, something which I had not experienced for about a year.

My most level headed friend bore the brunt of my uncontrollable sobbing. Having read the letter several times, she pointed out to me that right at the bottom in smaller print than the 'URGENT THIS DEMANDS YOUR ATTENTION' opening paragraph, was the sentence, 'if you have returned the form already please ignore...' She spent a number of hours calming me down and we decided to leave redoing the form until after the weekend. We agreed that I would phone back the Job Centre Plus number on Monday and do a final check to find out if the form had been 'found'.

So, I phoned on the Monday, with still five days to go to the original deadline of 18th March. This time when checking the 'WCA system' the notes had been updated. My form had been received on 7th March. The lady asked me when the 'reminder' letter had been sent: it was issued on 9th March.

There had been no need for the letter to be sent, and therefore no need to cause me undue distress. The system did not help me remotely in my recovery or give me any incentive me towards returning to work full time. In reality, I do not think that I will ever be able to manage that and maintain my emotional stability. In fact the emotional fall out from the incident has caused me to remain emotionally vulnerable for a six week period. Energy which could have been spent on planning ongoing recovery and increase in activity which will eventually lead me on to a return to some level of paid work, has instead been spent in recovering from the WCA process and in regaining the emotional stability which had been part of my recovery.

On reflection my experience of the WCA process was relatively straightforward and simple, resulting in my current placement in the support group of ESA continuing. Without the pressure of being in the WRAG group of the ESA (and the £30 per week reduction) I can return to my path to recovery without daily anxiety about having to meet arbitrary deadlines, appointments and interviews which would destabilise me entirely.

Yet, I have suffered six weeks of instability unnecessarily. I am well educated, have had over thirty years of work and professional experience, have a strong support network and had been stable for some months prior to the WCA process. I can only imagine the damage caused by this process to those who do not have access to any of these internal or external resources.

I have a number of observations:

1) If you insist on people on sickness and disability benefits meeting immovable deadlines under the threat of losing their income, then your system needs to be equally accountable and efficient in managing the needs of those it purports to 'help'.

2) If you issue threatening letters to people who are emotionally and mentally vulnerable, please have the courage to provide a direct phone line on which to contact you. Do not pass the buck to public servants who are not privy to all the information about your processes and who are faced with having to manage highly distressed individuals, some of whom are at raised risk of suicide or self harm as a result of your system.

3) Because I have a mental health condition, does not mean that I can be dismissed as not being worthy of the usual courtesies and social mores of our community. Even in the criminal justice system a defendant is 'presumed innocent' after the police have laid charges against them. The WCA process feels as if I am considered to be deliberately trying to defraud the system.

4) 0.3% of welfare claimants have been proved to have made fraudulent claims. That means that 99.7% are not - why set up a system which is so punitive for such a tiny proportion of your target constituency?

5) When will we value people for who they are, not for how much money they either 'cost' or 'contribute to' society? Although, I can point to the fact that I have managed to work for most of my life I am loathe to base my value or any right to claim support on this. When I was able to I was happy to join with the rest of the community in providing for the vulnerable and those in need in our nation. After all, I was helped through university by free education, so it was right that I paid my tax and national insurance towards supporting those who didn't earn as much.

6) When we judge those on welfare, we forget that it is possible for anyone to lose their health, job or home due to a sudden change in circumstances. 'There but for the grace of God, go I...'

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