Benefits for people with mental illnesses

I helped out today at a consultation event arranged by SAMH, the Scottish Association for Mental Health.  Their latest report focuses on Personal Independence Payment, and the experiences of people with mental illness claiming the benefit.  The report is based on comments from claimants, who felt disbelieved and stigmatised, and had no trust in the process.  The people I spoke to today had been treated as if their benefits were all to be judged on their capacity to work, and as their capacity to work was judged by their ability to do things physically, they weren’t entitled.  Assessors seemed not to understand, one participant explained eloquently,  that an invitation to explain what things were like at the very worst was equivalent to a request to revisit hell.

Mental illness poses a whole series of issues for benefits, which are not ideally covered by an emphasis either on disability or on long-term illness.   What should benefits for people with mental illness look like?  The benefits have to cover lots of possible contingencies – among them,

  • meeting income needs
  • offering social protection/insurance
  • support for carers
  • income smoothing
  • support while out of work
  • social inclusion
  • compensation for long-term low incomes and disadvantage
  • support for rehabilitation
  • facilitating employment
  • promoting engagement with medical services
  • protective income while in hospital
  • providing social care

As usual, most of these objectives have little do with the world of work – getting people into the labour market has only a limited role, as it does in lots of other benefits.

There is some limited reason to think that people with mental illnesses face higher costs, too, but the basic case for benefits is not based on extra costs.  Alf Morris MP, defending the introduction of Attendance Allowance, argued that the purpose of such benefits was to invest people with dignity.

“It is not only a question of finance we are discussing, but also the dignity of disabled people. … This provision must be seen as only part – a very minor part – of an entirely new financial deal for the severely disabled. … This is only one stage towards improving the financial status, and therefore the dignity, of every one of our severely disabled fellow citizens.”

That is as valid now as it ever was.

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