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The domino effect: The traumatic knock-on impact when claiming benefits

The application process for social security is so arduous and stressful that many disabled people are avoiding it altogether – and suffering even more, says RUTH HUNT

ACROSS Britain, people in genuine need, are opting to go without benefits, or not undertaking an appeal due to a previous traumatic experience with the welfare system. 

It can even extend to non-attendance at reviews unconnected with benefits, purely due to concern it will be as stressful as a previous claim. 

This seems to be particularly so for those having gone through the gruelling process for employment support allowance (ESA) or personal independence payments (PIP).

It is not just the end result of a benefit claim that can cause this distress. Since the so-called “reforms” to welfare benefits, the application process has become an arduous task, and rather than the myths created by George Osborne, Iain Duncan-Smith, Esther McVey and others, many people put off claiming for benefits until the point when they simply cannot go on any longer.

This was the case with Caroline, who had a busy career, but became increasingly ill due to rheumatoid arthritis, hidradenitis supportiva (a chronic skin condition) fibromyalgia and various auto-immune diseases.  

At one point it became clear that her care needs were increasing, so her husband finished work to care for her, and she would go freelance to try to help out with bills, but this wasn’t possible for long.

Caroline said: “On reflection I wasn’t fit to work, which was hard as I was someone who desperately wanted to work. 

“With my husband now a full-time carer, the practice nurse suggested he might be entitled to carer’s allowance, but to qualify for that I needed to claim PIP.”

When the claim forms arrived, Caroline found the whole process traumatic with confusing questions that expect a black or white answer, when in the real world things are far more complicated. 

For example, she could plan and organise a journey, but once planned, she wouldn’t be able to do the journey, as she uses a wheelchair and needs considerable help from her husband. 

On their way to the assessment, Caroline and her husband began to talk about her care needs, and how she had gone from a lively, confident, dynamic, independent woman to someone needing help to go to the toilet. 

It was a topic they hadn’t discussed before but due to the assessment, they were forced to confront it.

The face-to-face assessment, Caroline said, “was the most humiliating experience I could have imagined. A ‘health professional’ was working her way through a long list of questions. She showed no compassion! We were told several times to just answer the set question and not to elaborate. 

“At the end she asked me to sign the paper, I apologised as I was writing and explained that it hurt me to write.

“When the assessment report came back there were several untruths/lies/misrepresentations, it wasn’t a true reflection of my difficulties, but getting the standard living award did mean my husband could get carer’s allowance — but at what cost? 

“We were told to appeal but we just couldn’t face the humiliation again. I’ve worked for 40 years-plus. I’m an intelligent woman. I’m fighting complex medical issues on a daily basis, but the experience of claiming PIP broke me.”

Caroline is not alone. PIP in particular, with page after page in the claim pack where a person has to repeatedly write what they can’t do, or what they can no longer do, followed by a face-to-face assessment, which, for some, can only be described as tortuous, topped off by a report that seems to bear no relation to what was written when claiming or discussed in the assessment, leads many to despair. 

For “Andrew” this despair led to him making a serious attempt on his life, so much so, it resulted in him being sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983. 

With such distress caused by applying for PIP he has made the decision not to attend the review of his personal budget for his social care needs, which may result in him losing the support of his personal assistant (PA) whom he employs.

He said: “I will miss the few hours a week of practical and emotional support from the PA as this makes some difference to the quality of my life. 

“However, I have made the decision to only apply for financial means of survival due to the lack of support and severe distress that accompanies fighting for what I need and am entitled to.”

As in the case of Andrew, we can see with Laura that existing mental health problems were exacerbated by the benefits system.

Laura was a specialist healthcare assistant but had to stop work after a nervous breakdown. She has a diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

She had earlier qualified for contributions-based ESA, however, when Laura applied for PIP she didn’t receive any points for her mental or physical health conditions, despite her many problems, including constant pain and mobility difficulties that necessitated the use of a stick or a wheelchair on bad days. The stress and worry from this result led to an attempted suicide.

An appeal took eight long and stressful months, the result being she now gets standard rate for both components. 

As her husband is self-employed and is also caring for her, money is very tight, but the experience with her PIP application has made further claims too upsetting to complete.

As Laura said: “I looked into claiming housing and council tax benefit, but the paperwork got me so stressed, I was in bed for three weeks, and I haven’t even sent the application in. 

“This is the same for carer’s allowance — even though I now need 24-hour care due to medication interactions causing seizures.”

The domino effect not only means benefits or appeals are not taken up due to distressing experiences with previous claims but can also mean the individual is so scarred by the experience any meeting or review fills them with such dread as to make them not attend.  

With many of these benefits and reviews being “gateway” in nature, in that they lead to more help — whether financial or physical — it can mean the knock-on impact for these very vulnerable claimants is worse.

Even more apparent is the impact this is having on claimants’ mental health. If the domino impact of a traumatic experience with the benefit system is that a claimant is in need of intervention by psychiatric teams, surely the Department for Work and Pensions holds some responsibility for the current mental health crisis?

Ruth F Hunt is an author and a freelance journalist.

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