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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Worried sick by benefits cuts

This feature is almost 10 years old

​Mental health issues are hard enough to cope with but welfare cuts are making people's health worse

It’s just over three months since Claire Hastings gave up her housing association flat in Falkirk to move back in with her parents.

Diagnosed with a personality disorder seven years ago, dealing with day-to-day life can be a struggle.

Over the past year Claire says her health has dramatically deteriorated because of the way she has been treated by the welfare system.

She moved home because she was being penalised for an extra room under bedroom tax legislation and, though there was financially assistance available, she decided not to apply because the whole process made her anxious.

“When you have mental health issues, like I do, everyday life is an issue,” she said. “You need all the other things to work in your favour.

“My entire focus is on my health so when it comes to financial issues I just let them go. I simply can’t cope.”

Claire acknowledges she has been, to some extent, fortunate enough to have her parents to fall back on for support.

Many others are not so lucky. According to the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), people with mental health problems make up 45% of those on incapacity benefit, and the changes to the welfare system are causing huge amounts of distress.

Without the support group many would struggle - Philip O’Donnell

The charity’s Worried Sick report revealed over three-quarters of respondents (both SAMH staff and service users) said they were facing a reduced income as a result of the changes, with nearly nine out of 10 staff now having to provide increased levels of support to service users.

The situation has got so bad some of those facing financial problems have created their own self-help groups to share information and support.

Philip O’Donnell, a former office manager from Leith, Edinburgh, was forced to give up work three years ago because of depression. He’s been living off benefits for the last two years but says his situation has worsened because of the pressure being put on him to find work.

Having been assessed as fit for employment eight months ago, he created a small support network reaching out to others in the same situation.

“Some people are actually on the brink of suicide because of the pressure being put on them,” he said.

“If you’ve been out of work through mental ill health you just can’t walk straight back into a job. At the very least you need support but there is none available. Jobcentre Plus staff don’t signpost you to those services. There’s a basic lack of understanding and compassion.”

Without the support group many would struggle says O’Donnell.

“People are being plunged deeper into mental illness because of the cuts; there’s absolutely no doubt about it,” he said. “Being assessed as being fit to work doesn’t mean you are. Many aren’t, do they then get sanctioned when they get sacked because they can’t cope. How is that fair?”

It’s not just those out of work with mental health problems who struggle. Another SAMH report identified a clear need for more guidance on how to access information, help and support to tackle barriers and deal with mental health issues – especially by individuals living on a low income.

Half of those surveyed were unaware of government support schemes which could help them.

As well as additional mental health and emotional help, there were six incidents in which SAMH staff had to carry out suicide interventions directly related to welfare reform issues.

Billy Watson, SAMH chief executive said in the current context of welfare reforms, budget cuts and cost of living increases, the demand for information and advice from specialist services is increasing along with worries about debt, housing and employment.

“Understanding and awareness of mental health, and sources of support available alongside better resourced mental health services will have an impact on the cycle of poor mental health and poverty.

“With fewer than 17% of those in debt seeking help for money worries – simply because they don’t know what is available or even that they are entitled to support, it’s more important than ever that people are able to get good advice and support for their mental health.”