Dave (“normal, average delusional and paranoid man”) writes an excellent blog on trying to combat the stigmas which surround diagnoses of mental illness.

He says he is relatively well at the moment, and would like to make the return to work.

As I have, perhaps, written before, it is a continual bugbear of mine that those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia find it hard, nay almost impossible to find paid work, not only because of the stigmas which surround the diagnosis, but because there seems to be so little support out there for people like me to return to work. Despite a known high rate of willingness to work amongst those with mental ill health and despite many of us experiencing long periods of well-being (I would say I have been mentally fit at least since 2006) it seems that many of us, at relatively early ages, are put on the economic scrap heap

So, Dave wrote to Tory leader Dave Cameron and asked what exactly the Conservatives proposed to offer to help people in his position.

The answer?

OK, so far, so vague. If I wanted to return to work, exactly what support would I get, other than being just moved to a different area of the benefits system, one which, it must be remembered, pays less in benefits than Incapacity. Nowhere is there mention of measures which might actually make a difference, like those suggested by Professor Graham Thornicroft, such as support from job coaches (employment advisers), providing structured psychological treatment, encouraging health and social care agencies to see the experience of mental illness as a positive attribute when hiring staff, developing new roles in which former service users are employed in a mental health team, and the introduction of “reasonable adjustments” as cited in the Disability Discrimination Act.

The above changes might actually make a difference to me in experiencing some form of success in the open market. On the other hand, the Tory policy of simply, if it was that I were found fit to work, moving me on to Job Seeker’s Allowance, would seem only to result in me receiving less money. The stigma which surrounds my diagnosis would remain, the difficulties in finding paid work perhaps not alleviated. So, what would the Tories do for people in my situation? According to this response, not near enough.

As usual, the politicians issue simplistic answers which do nothing to combat the real problems faced by people with various disabilities. They offer plenty of stick, in the form of threats to reduce our income, but nothing in the way of carrot, in the form of meaningful reform of the way people with disabilities and mental health problems are treated (in or out of the workplace). Like the Labour party, the Tories’ response is to increase the stress of living with a disability, which is entirely counterproductive as stress is one of the things guaranteed to make any kind of mental illness even worse.

One of the media’s latest gloating claims has been that most people on incapacity benefit in the UK “could do some work”. And I can hear these people now, were they to read this – “you can blog, why don’t you go out and get a job?”

My first reaction to these people is that that’s between me and my doctors, including the ones who assessed me for incapacity and agreed I qualified. Yes, you might not guess it from the way the papers write about the topic, but amazingly enough you already have to be assessed by professionals before you’re given incapacity benefits (which now have a confusing number of names, as the system is being switched over to something called ESA).

Since the point of this blog is to discuss these issues, I’ll overlook the rudeness of these interrogators for now, and give a few of the many valid answers to this question.

Why don’t you go out and get a job?

My disability doesn’t mean I can’t ever do any kind of work – I do voluntary work once a week, I write this blog, I enjoy taking photographs. What it does mean is that I cannot work often or reliably enough to perform in a job, as they’re arranged in today’s society. I do not know when I’m going to be too unwell, or how long that will last. I also get exhausted very easily, and half a day of voluntary work needs to be followed by a couple of days of doing nothing to recover some energy. I’m often exhausted, because just keeping up with everyday tasks like laundry and dishes and paying bills is overwhelming when you’re disabled, physically or otherwise.

Having some skills and abilities doesn’t mean you can exercise them in a job. It doesn’t mean you can show up on a day to day basis, partake in the expected social interactions (especially if you have to deal with customers with a chirpy smile on your face), and not quickly become so ill you can’t get out of bed. It doesn’t mean employers would want you, either, even for relatively menial work – I know someone who was fired from a job as a cart collector for Tesco, because he looked too glum. He committed suicide about a month later.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone who’s been on incapacity benefit for a couple of years gets better, and is able to return to work, which is what the government wants us to do. They apply for positions, if they’re really lucky they get an interview, and what happens? Oh look, they have a gap in their history of paid employment, no one wants to give them a job. If you want to remove barriers to work, how about starting with the ones caused by the people in the position of power, instead of constantly attacking the powerless?

There are many more aspects I could cover here, of course, and they’ll be brought up in future posts. For instance, along with energy goes time. Doctor’s appointments, psychiatrist’s appointments, CPNs, support groups and CMHTs, even if you have the energy to do more than all that you’re going to need a job that doesn’t mind giving you frequently time off for it. People with physical disabilities face other factors too, like the extra stress and effort of finding accessible transport, arranging aides and assistants, even things as simple (to most of us) as people understanding it takes you 20 minutes to go to the loo.

Being able to work is about more than just your physical ability to perform a task. It’s also about being able to get and keep a job that’s appropriate to your abilities, without making yourself more disabled and more unwell.