This month, the Mental Health Foundation is organising activities and events for Mental Health Awareness Week. For the last few years, the theme of awareness week has been based on the ‘Five Winning Ways to Wellbeing’, the essence of a number of studies into what makes people (whether labelled with a mental illness or not) well and happy. From the research, five key aspects of wellness have been identified, namely, connecting with others – family or friends, being active, keeping learning, taking notice of the small things around us, and giving to others.
For people living with the assistance of welfare benefits, ‘giving’, this important aspect of wellness is considerably restricted. Not only do most people living on state assistance receive less than is adequate to look after themselves, let alone have surplus to give to charity or lend to friends in need, but they are also excluded from offering their time voluntarily to charitable organisations or community groups as Work and Income policy sees this as potentially interfering with their ability to find work, or, if they are receiving a Sickness or Invalids benefit, proof of their ability to be in paid employment. I spoke with one such person a few days ago who has received support for a long period of time due to disability and she expressed sadness and frustration that a person she knows in a similar situation is having to hide the fact that they are helping out with a local charity from WINZ.
Recently, the government has revealed welfare reforms which will have a further dire impact on people’s mental health and that of mental health consumers in particular. These follow an initial wave of welfare reforms which have made changes to assistance available to youth in particular. Announced changes to welfare policy include completely cancelling assistance for three months for people who are considered to have turned down a suitable job, halving assistance for people whose children are not enrolled with a GP or early childcare centre, and cutting assistance for people who fail or refuse a drug test at a new job, or have outstanding arrest warrants.
Much of the opposition to this second wave of reforms have focussed on the impact on families and children reliant on state assistance, or on the erosion of people’s right to the necessities of life. A number of changes, however, can be seen to impact people with mental health needs in a disproportionately detrimental way. Amongst the changes being introduced is a complete restructuring of benefit categories with considerable changes to the way illness and disability are defined and handled. Other policy, which appears minor at first glance, is also set to create immense challenges for people with mental illness.
This is most obvious when we look at the new requirements for beneficiaries to communicate with Work and Income. WINZ will be able to halve a person’s benefit if attempts to contact them by phone three times go unanswered and the person does not reply to the voicemail message they leave. Initially this seems to be a punitive policy which will impact on anyone who has commitments outside of sitting around waiting for a call from Work and Income, or anyone who does not have phone credit to check their messages. However, this kind of policy has the potential to impact far more adversely on people who experience mental distress.
For individuals with anxiety, many of whom experience difficulties answering phone calls, and for people who live with obsessive compulsive disorder, who are already inclined to check and re-check, the threat of losing half of their support is bound to heighten their existing distress and symptoms of mental illness. For people who have escaped violence or abuse, avoiding phone calls is more likely to be a strategy to keep safe from harassment than a deliberate attempt to be a difficult client for Work and Income. Similarly with depression, it is common for people to be so physically exhausted they are unable to get out of bed let alone answer the phone.
It seems that issues such as these have been overlooked in the development of the new welfare policies because individual circumstances are not taken into account. For those deemed able to work in some way, social welfare policy does not appear to recognise the diverse range of experiences, challenges and needs they may have. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the decision with these latest welfare reforms to restructure benefit categories, removing the Sickness Benefit and creating a sharp, and artificial, divide between people who are considered able to work and those who have a lifelong condition permanently preventing their involvement in the labour market.
From the seven existing benefits, restructuring will result in only three remaining, with new names and criteria for receiving them. The Jobseeker support benefit will include all those currently receiving unemployment and sickness benefits as well as sole parents with children, and will require recipients to be available and actively looking for work. There will also be Sole Parent Support and a Supported Living Payment for those presently receiving an invalids benefit, or support for caring for someone with a chronic condition.
By erasing the sickness benefit, the Government perpetuates two opposing, yet equally stigmatising views of mental illness. The notion that mental illness is a permanent, irreversible condition that people are unable to recover from has been challenged for years by anti-discrimination campaigns such as Like Minds, Like Mine – the same organisation promoting Mental Health Awareness Week. Forcing sickness beneficiaries onto a Jobseeker benefit will encourage people to look for ways to have their condition, which impairs and limits work options, recognised by the State’s social development department. This is likely to result in more people applying for a Supported Living Payment (equivalent to the present invalids benefit) where they are expected not to recover, and where they are bound to lose hope for recovery from mental distress.
Similarly, for those who receive the Jobseeker Support where they would have previously qualified for a Sickness Benefit, the expectation is an ability to work equal to that of people who are temporarily out of employment. For people with personal experience of mental illness, this is a daunting assumption. It is also an assumption which perpetuates the myth that mental illness is not real or valid, and that people who are labelled as mentally ill can simply ‘get over it’ if they try, and lead normal lives, employment included.
While there are numerous reasons to oppose the most recent welfare reforms, and many of these extend to whole communities, not just people with specific experiences and needs, considering the changes as an attack on an already marginalised section of society is a valuable lens through which to view and criticise their impact. A national day of action against welfare reforms has been organised for this month, and on-going action is expected. Supporting and getting involved in this struggle is one of the most significant acts of solidarity we can show to people whose lives are impacted by mental illness, as well as our communities as a whole.