When people say that depression can be cured by work, it really bothers me. I started working from the age of 14. My first suicide attempt was at 15 on the night of my last GCSE; not exam stress related but due to the abuse I was suffering at home, didn’t know it was ‘abuse’ at the time because it was what I’d always known and grown up with. I was in full time education, had many extra curricular activities going on including sports and music, and worked most of the weekend. I still ‘had time’ to be depressed and it came out in a way that caused the police to find me and bring me home. To more abuse.
In 2005 I was working 50+ hours a week in retail as a store manager while in an abusive relationship where I was a victim of pretty much every type of domestic violence. I still went out clubbing at least once a week with my best friend, but attempted suicide multiple times, went to my GP who signed me off for a month with depression because I finally got up the guts to ask for help. I was then diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder as he referred me right away to mental health services when I told him what I’d been struggling to keep under control for so many years.
I don’t work now, but I have worked and paid my taxes and NI. I deserve to take out of the system and intend to contribute to it again. But you know, just because you go to work, it doesn’t mean you’re paying into a ‘keep myself free from mental health’ fund like you pay National Insurance. It doesn’t make you immune to the urge to cut yourself, to kill yourself, to feel as if there’s nothing worth living for. It doesn’t stop the panic attacks that can cripple you in the middle of the street. Or in the workplace. It doesn’t stop the lack of concentration. The drops into the abyss where you feel you just can’t face anyone. Work doesn’t give you an immunity to that.
I want to work, but I know that my mental health right now, while vastly improved from the days I was housebound with back pain and depression, the days when I would shun every single person including those who were trying to help me because I felt that I was a ‘scrounger’ if I did; I didn’t claim benefits for a year other than still receiving my existing Disability Living Allowance claim, fell into major rent and council tax arrears as a result – directly linked to my mental health and lack of sufficient support when I transferred from 24 hour supported accommodation to my own tenancy, still having the arrears docked from my benefits along with paying the bedroom tax for a flat that I was entitled to as a disabled person needing an overnight carer for how severe my suicidal ideation had gotten. I still have the major hurdle of facing my major summer depressive episode that even last year made me feel irrationally suicidal for a week straight. But you know, I went to my GP instead of trying to do anything to myself. For the first time in 9 years since I first sought help. Because I have the right support now and I’m not going to let people intimidate me into feeling that I’m not allowed to have a fluctuating condition that can cripple me.
Depression comes in different types and can be part of different mental health conditions. Sometimes you can have it alongside other mental health issues. I have Borderline Personality Disorder as well as MDD, although as I’m always being assessed when I’m on manics and downplaying everything trying to pretend that I’m OK (much like I did with people for many years), I actually think it’s bipolar, as did my therapist who I saw weekly for a whole year when I was experiencing my most intense manic episodes without the buffer of any medication. It’s splitting hairs though. A label on your condition isn’t everything and only gets you so far. It’s how you deal with what’s going on. BPD has a massive stigma attached and isn’t as ‘accepted’ as bipolar. You’re seen as manipulative, psychotic, unstable, unsafe… You end up scared of yourself to the point where you feel life isn’t worth living if all you’re going to do is hurt and scare others because of something that isn’t your fault. As someone who’s grown up in the shadow of an abusive alcoholic parent, it made me put even greater pressure on myself. I failed to meet my own expectations and punished myself for it. Didn’t know that at the time, but I can understand it now in retrospect after I’ve gone through a living hell.
Antidepressants were sending me off the rails. Antipsychotics were crippling me as a person, leaving me incapable of forming a coherent sentence at times or remembering certain words. As someone who’s seen as verbose, it made me frustrated and fuelled my manics or made me feel so depressed because I couldn’t get out a simple sentence; because I couldn’t control my emotions without pills which didn’t seem to be doing anything but causing me more problems, robbing me of dignity because of the side effects (weight gain included). Pills which my then GP refused to change other than to another that would make me worse. The linkworker system had scared me off trying to access mental health services and there was only so much the counsellor I was seeing could help me with. After 25, I was too old to use the service where I was seeing her, a service which is currently under threat by government cuts and lack of funding. A service that while I was using it, was helping me cope with my condition and allow me the opportunities not just to seek advice and help, but also to give back with voluntary work which boosted my self-esteem and helped me manage my depression and anxiety.
As much as I detest my mother for the severe abuse she put me through as a child, I wouldn’t wish my mental health on her or anyone else. And I know there’s people out there who have been through far worse and suffer far more than I do.
During my ESA claim so far, the Jobcentre have called me in twice. The first time I saw my advisor, I showed him my DLA forms which a so called ‘support worker’ had filled out for me and not only misrepresented me but missed out swathes of information about my health (my DLA award had been cut from high care/low mobility to low care/low mobility). I showed him my notes, letters from my GP, my old DLA claim form, letters from the hospital as well as bringing a friend with me because I was too scared to leave the house; I was keeping myself prisoner because I was scared of how severe my moods had gotten when around other people, was embarrassed at what my mental health had done to me physically – antipsychotics are a great way to gain weight, especially when you have back problems and untreated Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome!
When the advisor read through my paperwork, he said that the ESA decision to put me in the Work Related Assessment Group was based on the botched DLA form, which I had been told to pre-sign before this support worker filled out so it could be posted faster. He said that with my medical conditions, the need for testing and hospital referrals, that it wasn’t viable for me to be in the WRAG, as I was in no state to be returning to work if I had to be constantly going places for investigative treatment. That was before last summer’s trip to the GP for suicidal ideation which meant that I was then attending weekly therapy in the middle of the afternoon, and later on physiotherapy in addition to a referral to ophthalmology at my local hospital about vision loss that I was experiencing and degeneration of one of my optic nerves.
He advised me to appeal (the Jobcentres do have some people with souls left) and said that they’d be in touch in 3-4 months time to see if my situation had changed and where to go from there. They didn’t contact me about requiring any help to return to work yet until yesterday when they texted me about it. Not forcing me to go in or anything, just a ‘We’re here if you need us’. I’m very fortunate as some people aren’t treated with such compassion and are constantly harassed and bothered by the Jobcentre. I’ve been extremely fortunate that they’ve left me alone to get better (although I’m sure that’s not their intention). Currently I’m waiting on my reassessment but after sending my ESA 50 off some 6 months ago now, the information’s going to be rather outdated. I’ll probably be back at work or in work-related training before I get the date for my medical. But see, without the constant pressure and hassle, I’ve been able to seek the correct treatment and help, to get better and be in a position where I can work again. The problem is that when I go back to work, the credit will go to the government for ‘helping me back’ with their schemes. No, I’m an example that the best method for those who are ill is to be left alone but informed that the assistance is there should it be needed.
The second time I was called in was because of someone claiming I was working when I wasn’t. I had fallen out with the friend who went with me before (who had basically been milking me for money constantly, was on benefits herself and had never worked – does now though) and think it was her who had reported me for some online game moderation I was doing while not claiming ESA; it was unpaid voluntary work from home which wasn’t even so much work as a hobby as I played the games myself. For that, I was pulled into the Jobcentre and interrogated like it was a police interview. I was crying, having an anxiety attack and going into a complete meltdown because I was so scared that I’d have the little money that was keeping me alive taken away from me. Just like I lost everything I worked for when I left my abusive partners in the past. How I lost my home because of my fiancé turning up on my doorstep with death threats that caused me subsequent issues with homelessness and rent arrears because I was too scared to go to the police about him. That caused me problems with relationships as well, some of which are still ongoing. Just like my mental health had stolen my life away from me and the best part of my 20s. How abuse had ruled the first 25 years of my life.
I don’t think I can put into words quite how soul destroying that can be. If I hadn’t had my council intervene and be so compassionate about my mental health, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s been 5 years since I last attempted suicide, and I’m proud of myself for not giving in, even when I’ve not had any support. That it’s been 5 years since I last self harmed and that even when I had bailiffs on my door, it didn’t break my skin. I’ve had my minor setbacks and rough patches during my recovery, but I’ve come one hell of a long way from a mighty big fall.
You see the thing is, I didn’t have time for a job. I was too busy being ill. Depression can be worsened by lack of work, but it’s a much more complex condition than that. And there are so many people who have it much worse than what I’ve just talked about in my own personal experiences. I committed the crime of thinking in the past it wouldn’t happen to me, it wasn’t ‘that’ bad and people were faking it; mostly because of how my family thought and I’d never experienced anything to cause me to doubt it – plus I was in my teens, in denial about a lot of things and life wasn’t rosy at home. It took having my life stolen from me by depression to make me see it for what it was.
I wouldn’t be here now without the support of friends and my GP; support that some people lack, both in and out of work. When I’m back at work I’ll be even happier to stick two fingers up at people who look down on those who are seeking help (yes – that includes benefits) for what can be a life-ending condition. You wouldn’t do it to a cancer patient and mental illnesses are the cancer of the mind. The only difference is that some people can live with them for their whole lives, suffering until the day they die of other causes, not just from the illness itself causing them to take their own lives. We constantly tell people to check for physical cancer, but nowhere near as loudly for the mental health equivalent. Why? Because of stigma that desperately needs to be broken and people like the current government fuel, the ignorant falling for their divide and rule tactics because they can’t be bothered to do any of their own thinking. Because, it is ignorant to believe that mental health can simply be cured with a job. Stephen Fry is a shining example of that and a great inspiration to those of us with mental health problems. I have a great amount of respect for him for sharing what he as, as best as he has. But you, I nor anyone else will ever know exactly how bad it was for him and that right there alone is why you shouldn’t judge someone based on their mental health.
The view that work is the cure for depression is just as ignorant, bigoted and ableist as the social worker present when I was sectioned who told me I was ‘too intelligent and articulate’ to have a mental health problem.