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British Article about Social Welfare and Mental Illness

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Benefits helped me turn my life around

I'm bipolar, and benefits aren't just a handout – they allowed me the time I needed to manage my illness and build for the future

This week, people across the country protested against the cuts in welfare spending. Without a mobilising force such as the NUS behind them, it remains to be seen if they will dent the public consciousness as much as the student protests have done.

Much has been made of the benefits-dependency culture allegedly rampant in Britain; the image of those on benefits is one of people greedily pocketing cash then resigning themselves to lives beneath the duvet. But time on benefits does not have to be time in limbo; it can be a time of growth and recovery.

In 2006, I was a 20-year-old freshly discharged from a psychiatric ward, newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In the previous six months, years of mental ill health had culminated in a psychotic breakdown. Prior to this, I had worked since I was 17 in increasingly temporary jobs the more ill I became.

As soon as I was discharged with a punishing regime of psychiatric medication to control my condition, I was advised to find a job. It would give me something to do and besides, living with my employed boyfriend, I wasn't entitled to benefits. Despite being noticeably manic, with difficulty caring for myself and a tenuous grasp on reality, I looked for employment. In between my grandiose applications for gym instructor roles, I found a job with the help of a friend. I was barely able to wake up in the morning due to the sedating effects of my antipsychotic medication, which gave me embarrassingly noticeable hand tremors. I slurred my speech, and was routinely asked at work if I had been drinking. Though I had disclosed my illness to my employers, I was unable to get time off for psychiatric appointments. Bereft of that support and barely able to take medication because of the adverse effect it had on my work, I became ill again.

And again. The cycle continued. One temp job after another followed, in the desperate scrabble to keep my head above the quicksand. I was too ill to work but with no other choice. In desperation, I moved from our home and into another borough, where I was assigned a new psychiatric nurse. They advised me to stop working and give myself time to recover. My psychiatric nurse and GP helped me complete forms for income support, disability living allowance and housing benefit. After a long time searching – as few landlords accept people on housing benefit – I found a bedsit to live in. Though I was deemed unfit for work at a medical (not a title I took pride in), it was still a long time before I received any money. And in the interim, unable to eat or pay my rent, I humiliatingly borrowed from kind friends.

With benefits, I was able to focus on getting well. I had money to eat. Disability living allowance meant I could rent a one-bedroom flat, which gave me room for people to stay when I needed extra help, and privacy to experience the more distressing aspects of my illness. Over the next two years, I began to recover. I had some stability. A home. I could take my medication, attend my appointments and because of my benefits, I had access to services that helped me get my life together. I kept myself as busy as I could, doing things that interested me, which would bolster my CV when I began looking for work. I wrote, became involved in activism. It helped me rebuild the self-respect that had been shattered by the worst excesses of my illness.

I am now stable and can manage my illness. Although I still see my social worker, it's mostly to monitor my progress. With funding from a personal budget, I am studying an access to nursing course and have applied to study mental health nursing next year. By then, I hope I will have a job.

People who are ill want to recover. But they need support in place to do that. Without the basics, there is no way up. There are people who will not be able to work, and they should be supported because they are fellow human beings; they contribute to society in more ways than work. These short-sighted cuts assume benefits are merely a handout. They are not. They are a safety net than can help people to rebuild their lives for the future.


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