By Keir Liddle
People generally hold the belief that it will be hard or difficult to work with or employ people with mental health issues they imagine that people with mental health issues will be unreliable, emotional or that the “reasonable adjustments” that they are duty bound to make by law will be damaging to their business. It is no wonder that a recent survey by the charity Shaw Trust suggested more than half of all employers would not hire someone with a known mental disorder and that the same survey also suggested that 80% thought this to be “a risk” in a customer-facing role.
Though Royal College of Psychiatrists research suggests that of employers who did employ people with mental health issues 85% of employers did not regret doing so despite this the British public still worry about revealing to their co-workers they suffer with mental health issues. It was found in a yougov poll that 92% of the British public believes that admitting to having a mental illness would damage someone’s career.
Attitudes like this can promote discrimination against the mentally ill and discourage or otherwise make it difficult for the mentally ill seeking employment, in a sense making them damned if they do.
However far more insidious and disgusting is the attitude towards those who cannot work (for whatever mental health issues) who are seen as work shy malingers and damned because they don’t. It is also this attitude that seems to have motivated the shake up of the benefits system with a focus on ‘weeding out benefits scroungers’. However IB only has a fraud rate of 0.5% which is the lowest of all the benefits. Despite this 1.6 million people are due to go for a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) by spring 2014 to establish whether they are eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or be moved onto Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and expected to find work.
A French IT firm ATOS has the contract to provide these WCA and these have proved increasingly controversial particularly to those with mental health issues or that work with them. The tests determine whether an individual who has been on incapacity should be placed in a support group, work activity group or are in fact “fit for work”.
It is in my opinion highly questionable that the ATOS tests are fit for purpose as current DWP figures for ESA claims (to November 2009) show that 6.8% of those with mental health problems assessed through the WCA were placed in the Support Group and 24% in the Work-Related Activity Group, whilst 69.2% were found to be “fit for work”. The equivalent figures for those with physical problems are 11.6%, 23.7% and 64.7% (Department for Work and Pensions, 2010a). The figure for those being found “fit for work” with mental health issues is higher than that of 49% originally estimated by the DWP (Citizens Advice Bureau, 2010).
The tests are also highly wasteful as we can see from the official statistics that, of the overall appeals against the decision of fitness to work, 40% of the decisions are overturned. Part of the reason for this is because the test is additive I know of one case where it is agreed that an person cannot leave their house but because they show insight into their agoraphobia and score highly on other elements in the test they are consistently found to be “fit for work” before appealing and having this decision overturned. They rather pointedly and poignantly told me that:
“If I were to jump out of the window during the test they would probably tick a box saying “No fear of Heights”
The tests cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, particularly to those with mental health issues, the charity Mind polled over 300 people currently claiming IB for mental health problems before the upcoming reassessments and found that:
- 75% said concern about the WCA had made their mental health worse
- 51% reported it had made them have suicidal thoughts
- 45% have visited their GP or psychiatrist and 32% have increased their medication as a result of the anxiety caused by the prospect of reassessment
- 78% did not feel well informed about forthcoming changes to IB
- 95% do not think that they will be believed at their assessment.
- 89% believe that they will be forced back to work before they are ready or able.
Worryingly only 20% of people surveyed stated that they had got information about the changes from the Department for Work and Pensions with the most common source of information about the tests was TV or newspapers – 62% .
It is my belief that the WCA tests cause unnecessary anxiety and suffering for people with mental health issues and show that we have a low way to go as a nation in stamping out stigma and becoming a more tolerant and understanding society.