This is the letter I wrote, but never sent to my MP. I never sent it because writing it took so much energy, that I couldn’t face going back and proof reading it, and by the time I was ready to do that, we’d completed the appeal and Greté had been moved to the Support Group. So apologies in advance for bad grammar, repetition and typos.
I wrote the letter the day we got back from the interview at the DWP, which is a mandatory aspect of being in the ESA Work-Related Activity Group.
“I appreciate this is a long letter, but it is written from the heart, and I implore you to read it.
Myself and my wife (Greté Evans) have just returned from a mandatory interview with an employee at the Job Centre. Firstly, I want to say that I have the utmost respect for the staff working there, and that despite the rest of this letter I have no complaints about how any individual has dealt with our case.
My wife suffers from a condition which used to be called Dysthymia, but is sometimes known as Persistent Depressive Disorder. The Wikipedia link for the condition is,
My wife also suffers from a Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia and a number of related conditions. Additionally, she has chronic back pain due to an issue with her spine.
In the mid to late 90’s, while undiagnosed but still suffering from dysthymia, my wife continued to try and work. Sometimes those were paid roles, sometimes they were voluntary. However, around 1997 my wife’s health deteriorated and she was laid off from her last paid job. Although she was diagnosed (again) as being depressed, and given anti-depressants, the diagnosis was not for dysthymia and the anti-depressants in question were unsuitable.
After a number of months, Greté tried again to get work, with a temp agency, but during her first day suffered a severe panic attack and had to leave the office to which she had been sent. This crushed the last of her remaining self-confidence and over the next year or so, her health suffered even more greatly. Over the following 2 years there were periods in which she considered suicide as her only source of relief.
Over subsequent years, Greté had severe bouts of depression on and off, over the top of the constant dysthymia. Eventually, she met a GP who understood her condition and together they finally found a diagnosis for Greté (tragically, the GP was Dr Elizabeth Kinston). With the right medication and support, Greté has been able to manage her symptoms for a number of years now.
But she is not cured. Every day she battles depression, every day she battles panic attacks and crushingly low self-esteem. Some days Greté is able to go out to places she knows well, with people she trusts, and those people might think she’s perfectly healthy. Greté can go shopping to Tesco, but if something out of the ordinary happens, or the aisles are busier than she was expecting, she might well suffer a panic attack and have to leave. Other days she battles to even get out of bed.
During all of this, Greté has received various benefits, and until recently was receiving the non-means tested benefit introduced before ESA. During those periods we have both suffered the shame and dehumanising health assessments, carried out over the years by decreasingly qualified medical staff. In 2006 we appealed when Greté was told she was fit to work. Within minutes of the appeal board interviewing Greté, it was clear to them the decision had been made in error and her benefit was re-instated and back-paid.
Earlier this year, Greté was informed she would be moving to the new benefit system, and would need an assessment. We received the forms and completed them honestly, as best as we could. Within a few weeks Greté was notified she was being categorised and placed in the Work-related activity group. We were told we had 30 days to appeal.
But we didn’t know what to expect. Greté doesn’t want to spend her life not working. She already suffers from severe self-esteem issues and not being in work in the current climate and current ‘scrounger mentality’ government stance makes those feelings ever more acute. We both hoped that maybe the process would offer up some help, some assistance. Greté could speak to people who understood her condition and together they could work through the options and perhaps begin the process of understanding how, if possible, Greté would be able to get back to work.
This is all against a backdrop of my deepest fear. Greté’s condition means that she can’t handle change, confrontation, unexpected situations or some social interaction without severe panic. A panic attack at work so severe you can’t breathe (let’s not even talk about getting through a job interview), and leads to you running out of the building will only lead to a tough conversation the next day. So maybe Greté has a panic attack and a few days of severe depression and then goes back to work. Maybe it happens again a few weeks after, and another conversation with her manager results. But Greté’s illness prevents her from handling that as well, and she’s signed off for 2 more weeks. Combined together, this causes Greté’s ever present real illness to worsen, her self-esteem to crash and her anxiety to take over her whole day, and suddenly she’s considering suicide again as the only option.
Despite that fear, we didn’t appeal immediately, we waited and we went to the first interview with the DWP. Of course, Greté couldn’t go on her own, but I went with her and we listened to the member of staff tell us what this process entailed.
Her first comment was that most people miss the bit in the letter that says benefit is only paid for 365 days before becoming means tested. Indeed, we had both missed that. Greté immediately suffered a panic attack, began crying uncontrollably and would have left the building had I not been there to basically physically hold onto her. I got her calmed down, and we listened to the rest. Basically, there is no support, there is no officer who understands Greté’s mental illness. There is someone who can help you find work, but finding work isn’t the problem.
The issue is Greté being physically capable of attending an interview and holding down a job with her current illness without eventually becoming suicidal.
Even if we don’t engage with the process, and just go by the numbers, in a year my wife’s benefit will stop. I work full time, and earn a salary. I’m sure we’ll still be able to eat, but that’s not the problem. My wife’s illness leaves her with no self-esteem. She already considers herself, during the worst of her days, a burden on me, and those around her. The fact that she currently has her own money with which she can contribute to bills, gives her some sense of worth. When that last thing is taken from her, when she feels as worthless as she can, it will be the final act of a government that doesn’t care about her.
So today, while my wife recovers from her ordeal and tries not to slip into a further depression which may last weeks, I am going to start the process of appealing the initial assessment.
We tried to engage this process constructively, we wanted and hoped that we might get some help, and that Greté might get some support to work despite the significant challenges she faces. But it is clear to me that the process itself is not constructive, that actually it doesn’t care about the effect working for a living might have on someone’s health, it cares only about getting that person off benefit and into a job. Should they fall sick again afterwards, or indeed, God forbid, should they become so sick they commit suicide, the process doesn’t care and for a short time at least the person is off benefit and killing themselves slowly in a day job.
I will not allow anyone to make my wife more ill. No matter how healthy she appears day to day, the very act of working for a living could put her life at risk, and I won’t allow it to happen. Ironically, if she were in work right now, she’d be signed off sick due to the anxiety and additional depression the recent few weeks and months have brought on.
You may feel I am being melodramatic. I have no idea how much you know about mental illness, depression, anxiety or any of the other issues that myself and my wife live with on a day to day basis, but I promise you, there is no exaggeration here, no drama for the sake of it.
Just an amazing wife who suffers from a terrible, invisible illness.
I do not know what I expect you to do with this letter, I guess I just mostly want you to know how current policy is affecting real people.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.”