Time to fix a broken system
Brian Dow, Rethink Mental Illness
Late last week the Government quietly announced that it will not be challenging the High Court’s decision to overturn discriminatory changes to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) regulations.
PIP is the benefit you receive if you require extra support to live independently it can help pay for things like transport and assistance. Last year people living with mental illness challenged why they were not able to access the higher levels of this benefit that people with physical illnesses can. So the Government responded by changing eligibility to explicitly exclude mental health issues.
The High Court said these changes were 'blatantly discriminatory' and it’s very hard to disagree with that assessment.
This welcome U-turn should enable tens of thousands of people to access money that they are rightly entitled to. The decision to backdate these payments will restore the sense of independence to those from which it was unjustly taken.
Thousands of supporters had mobilised to take part in our ‘Protect PIP’ campaign and made their voices heard about just how unfair this policy was. For many it seemed to crystallise something they had always felt about the system: that it does not and cannot understand mental illness.
Really this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes the problems with benefits and mental illness.
So while this decision is very welcome much more is needed to fix a system that has been consistently failing people with mental illness.
Most fundamentally our benefits system doesn’t seem capable to assess mental illness accurately. This is borne out when 68% of decisions involving mental illness that are appealed are overturned. Only 26% of respondents to a recent survey we conducted on PIP felt that the outcome of their assessment was satisfactory.
This comes down to assessors who lack expertise and an assessment framework that was seemingly designed exclusively with physical health in mind: we’ve heard stories of people with severe depression being asked if they can touch their toes. Quite why that would be illuminating is anyone’s guess.
But more than that, supporters have told us how distressing the process is. One person living with severe mental illness reported,
I got very upset, crying and visibly shaking but the assessor stated in her report that I was “normal” and coped well with the assessment.
From the initial bureaucracy, to the attitude of some assessors, to the endless waits for appeals the whole experience can be overwhelming and humiliating.
Our research found that 38% of claimants felt that delays in decisions led to deterioration in their mental health, and 19% had to take higher doses of medication in order to cope with the increased stress as a result.
It seems fairly obvious that a system theoretically there to support people with long term illnesses and disabilities should not make said illnesses worse.
More than anything the system seems self-defeating. The majority of people living with a mental illness want to find and be supported in work and yet the system is setting them back.
We need fundamental reform of the system to accommodate mental health as more than an afterthought. Whatever might be said about this decision it does at least show the Government has listened to people affected by mental illness; and now it needs to listen again.
Brian Dow is the director of external affairs at Rethink Mental Illness. Follow him on Twitter via https://twitter.com/briancdow