Tag Archives: welfare benefits


26 Aug

Talking potatoes Family Superfoods

You know the first thing friends from the psychiatric ward ask when we bump into each other? “Have you been back in since?” We just want to stay out. Our ward wouldn’t pass the “friends & family test”: going back to that place is seen as the worst thing that could happen. “Hi! How you doing? Been back in? “No. You?” “No, thank goodness. What’ve you been up to?” “Doing what I need to do to stay out.” “Me too.”

Last night at a cashpoint, a tall young woman approached me. “Got any spare change? My benefits were stopped. I’ve got no food or electricity.” She looked into my eyes, from eye to eye, imploring. “I’ve got no money. My benefits were stopped.” Hang on … We looked again and recognised each other from the ward. Back then, she was so vulnerable, so easily led, so naive. Just a teenager. She’d been in for 18 months.

“Are you still with the community mental health team?” I asked? Last time I’d seen her, she’d been there with her mum, waiting in the waiting room for an appointment. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s make an appointment with the benefits adviser. She’s really good. She’ll help with your benefits. They’re stopping them for the least little thing at the moment. Maybe she can get you help with a loan or a grant or something.” She looked around. “How’s your mum? Is she okay?” “I don’t know. We had an argument. We don’t speak any more. Do you have any spare change?”

“What would you like me to buy you?” I asked her. The cashpoint was outside a supermarket. “I was just going into the shop. Come with me and choose something nice to eat.” She shifted from foot to foot, looked down, looked up into my eyes again. “I just need cash. I’ve got no electricity or food at home. Can you give me some cash?”

“Come back to my house then.” I lived just round the corner. “I’ll cook you dinner. What would you like?” “No thanks. I just want money. Have you got any spare change?” Her skin was bad. She’d cut her hair short. Her glow was gone. She kept looking around behind my head, shifting from foot to foot.

In hospital, she’d been beautiful, naive and full of enthusiasm. She wanted to be a doctor. Or a model. Or both. She had no street smarts or guile. Just an enormous smile.

As a girl, she’d had an argument with her bullying brother one night and had run away from home. She’d been placed in a hostel, a safe place for vulnerable young people to stay. In the hostel, she’d been sexually assaulted by another resident. The mutual friend she’d confided in hadn’t believed her. Had blamed her. She hadn’t told anyone else about the assault. She was young and naive and hadn’t known how to deal with it. She’d kept living at the hostel. With her attacker. Who’d come back for more.

She’d stopped eating when her food started talking to her; when she could see little mouths in the baked beans speaking to her. When she’d become so skinny people noticed, she’d told them about the little mouths in the baked beans. She hadn’t told them about the assaults. It takes time and trust to build up to telling someone something like that. And she hadn’t had that.

She’d been taken from the hostel to the psychiatric hospital. They’d given her drugs for the little mouths in the baked beans; for the food that was speaking to her. They’d kept giving her more drugs and more drugs till she’d told them the food wasn’t talking to her any more and had put on weight.

When I met her on ward, she’d been there for 18 months. She hadn’t had any talking therapy. Just drugs. She hadn’t had any help to prepare for life outside the ward. Just weekly group sessions with the occupational therapists where we painted our toenails or tasted smoothies. But at least she wasn’t skinny any more.

When I met her on ward, she was so sweet and helpless that everyone was protective and did stuff for her. I encouraged her to learn to do things for herself: she’d need that when she got out; or at least the confidence to believe she could learn to do things for herself.

One day, she asked me to put on false eyelashes for her. Instead, I taught her how to do it herself. It took the whole evening. But she did it. Next day, she came back & showed me she’d done it herself. They weren’t on quite straight, but she was so pleased and proud. I was too. False eyelashes rock. She looked fabulous on the outside, with her dramatic eye make-up; and she felt fabulous on the inside, with her sense of achievement.

Next day, she told me about the assaults. She told me about her life and how she’d ended up on ward. She told me she was due for discharge soon. She said she’d started to see the little mouths in the baked beans again.

I didn’t know what to do. My mind was blown by that place, by what they’d done to me there. It was too big for me to process. Hearing her disclosure scorched my brain as I listened. All I could think of to do was to tell her to tell the nurses.

She told the nurses about the little mouths in the baked beans. But not about the assaults. She still hadn’t talked about those. They increased the drugs dose to make the little mouths in the baked beans go away again. She was discharged shortly afterwards and placed in a shared flat with a stranger. After 18 months on ward. And still a teenager. She didn’t know how to wash her clothes, cook, or budget. She couldn’t even keep her room on ward tidy.

Looking at her last night, I wondered whether, all these years later, she’s had any help to process the sexual assaults. Any help with the voices. Any help with managing her life. I wondered if it mattered. Or if drugs were enough. I couldn’t tell how she was. I only knew that she was different. I only knew that I held both her hands and squeezed them as I looked into her eyes, and hugged her and hugged her, then saw her slowly walk away.

And, of course, we both knew – because it’s the first thing we ask when we meet a ward friend – that we hadn’t been back in since.

So tomorrow I’ll drop a note to CMHT asking them to check up on her. She’s too vulnerable to be begging at cashpoints. I don’t know what else to do for the best.


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Links to related websites:

  • My Storify story of tweets – Cashpoint
  • A rather creepy video of talking food (1 min) used to promote TV show Family Supercooks, an initiative of the Food Standards Agency and the Good Food Channel
  • Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head (14 mins) – her recent fascinating and inspiring TED talk



What does mental illness look like? The head clutcher

31 May
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1895

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1895

Once you start to notice them, they seem to be everywhere: the head clutcher. What are they? Not the image above, The Scream, an iconic portrayal of human misery, which has been much copied and parodied. Instead, they are stock pictures trotted out to illustrate media stories with a mental health angle, typically showing someone with their head in their hands.

I’ve tweeted about them before and, last week, I started to do so using the hashtag #headclutcher after seeing one stock photo (below right) appear in 3 separate media stories in the same day! Poor woman.

Head clutcher woman - she's popular with the press

Head clutcher woman – she’s popular with the press

In this blog post, I’ve drawn together what others have written about the head clutcher, including the blog by tweeter @Huwtube. After seeing my #headclutcher tweets, he wrote an hilarious post entitled The Rise of the Headclutcher, critiquing various such shots. It’s well worth checking out if you want a laugh.

Of course the serious side of this is that using stock head clutcher photos perpetuates an image in the public mind of what mental distress looks like. And, if you don’t meet that stereotype, well clearly you’re not deserving of help.

I’ve commented on this before (here) and I’ve experienced this myself. I can appear confident and cheerful and this counted against me in an Atos medical assessment (for eligibility for state sickness benefits): after checking I could touch my toes and reach overhead, the assessor noted in his written report that, because I had made eye contact, I must be fine. No mental health problems whatsoever. Perhaps if I’d spent the assessment with my head in my hands I’d have met with his expectations of what mental illness looks like and scored more than the zero points I was awarded.

As national anti-stigma campaign Time to Change says (in its guidance to journalists on choosing images to accompany stories with a mental health angle), “Some really strong stories that may include great content and have educational value can be weakened by the use of an inappropriate image”. We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

Check out the links below for more examples of head clutcher shots, together with others’ blogs on the subject. And, if you come across more head clutcher shots or other stereotypical representations of mental illness in the media, please feel free to add them in the comments below.

Happy head clutching!


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My head clutcher Storify stories (with links):


Links to others’ stories on the head clutcher and other media representations of mental illness:


Media guidance:Head clutcher Simpsons The Scream


Other stories about the use of stock photos:


Mainstream media stories illustrated by head clutcher pictures (often the same one):


Headclutchers in stories by other commentators:



Using mental illness as an insult – Mick Philpott, Jon Snow & lunatics

4 Apr

Jon Snow twitter profile pic

We’ve all done it: casually thrown around as insults terms related to mental illness. This evening, Jon Snow, Channel 4’s lead news anchor, posted a blog in which he used the term “lunatic” as an insult in the tragic Philpott case. When picked up on it, Snow swiftly apologised and earned brownie points for doing so. At present, however, Snow’s blog post still contains the term.

The problem with calling someone convicted of manslaughter a lunatic is that lunacy is a synonym for insanity, a legal defence to murder; its use in relation to the Philpott case is sloppy and inaccurate. And the trouble with casually using terms related to mental illness to insult people is that it turns mental illness into an insult.

As background, Snow’s blog post was in reference to distasteful and misleading political posturing reported during the day. Various pundits and politicians (in particular the Chancellor, George Osborne, later endorsed by the Prime Minster, David Campbell) sought to capitalise on the sentencing of the Philpotts and their friend for the manslaughter of 6 children. (Take a look at the links at the foot of this page to explore the subject further.) To take one example of the coverage, the Telegraph newspaper said:

“The Chancellor has questioned why British taxpayers should be “subsidising lifestyles” such as those of Mick Philpott, who was today sentenced to life in prison for killing six children. Mr Osborne made the controversial comments during a visit to Derby shortly after Philpott and his wife Mairead were handed their sentences for intentionally setting fire to their home. Asked whether the Philpotts were a product of Britain’s benefit system, Mr Osborne said: “It’s right we ask questions as a Government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these.”

Jon Snow has, in addition to his platform on a national broadcaster, nearly 300,000 twitter followers. He also introduced Channel 4’s 4 Goes Mad mental health season. He’s influential. Earlier this evening, I saw a tweet of his containing a link to a post on his Snow Blog about the tragic Philpott case. Snow’s post was titled: Can abnormal behaviour affect the welfare policy debate?

Snow, in a strongly worded rebuttal, asked whether there really was a case for regarding Mick Philpott’s behaviour as a valid ground for reforming welfare policy. He referenced, amongst others, statistics showing there were just 50 families in the UK with the same number of children as the Philpotts.

Philpott is not representative of people who are currently in need of the state safety net due to ill health, lack of private pension or inability to find paid work. And of course it is highly distasteful to use the tragedy of the deaths of 6 children for political purposes. Snow’s blog was robust and well-written, apart from this, which caught my eye:

“The idea that an entire system should be re-jigged to cope with a lunatic who burnt to death half the children he’d fathered seems questionable at the least.”

Here, Snow uses the word “lunatic” as an insult, in order very deliberately to convey the deepest disapproval. The trouble with using terms related to mental illness as insults – especially when it’s done by a figure as prominent as Snow – is that it’s just this sort of casual stigma that adds to the big fat stigma pie we’re being served extra helpings of at the moment.

As I then tweeted:

Disappointed @jonsnowC4 refers to Philpott as a “lunatic” when he was judged criminally responsible #casualstigma

Snow swiftly responded:

I apologise..that was sloppy of me.

And, in a response to another tweep, Snow tweeted:

I’m sorry the word ‘lunatic’ was very absuive [sic] usage..thoughtless..I should know better

I tweeted in response:

Credit to @jonsnowC4 for apologising so quickly for calling Philpott a lunatic. (Wish I was so good at apologising when I stuff up.)

Snow received plaudits for his quick apology, as my Storify of tweets shows. His fans hold him in even more affection now. For example, Rich Humphrey (@RichMHumphrey) tweeted:

“completely agree! Few in the media would hold their hands up like that. Even more respect for him now”

Finally, I also asked Snow:

Could you tweak the blog to remove the reference to lunatic? That’d be good.

At present, the blog has yet to be revised. Fingers crossed. There are so many expressive insults in the English language that there’s really no need to resort to using references to mental health as insults.



web links 5Links related to the story above


Links on the debate about what (if anything) the Philpott case tells us about welfare benefits, in light of the notorious Daily Mail headline (pictured below right) and George Osborne’s subsequent comments:

Firstly, coverage on 4th April:

Coverage from later dates (added to this blog subsequently):



When I came out of hospital, I thought I’d be focussing on getting better …

23 Mar

Way out sign

Here are some tweets about the bumpy road I’ve been on since being discharged from hospital. I thought I’d be focussing on getting better.I thought I’d be resting my mind and doing things to nurture myself mentally and physically. Instead, I’ve had to focus on lots of other things.




What does mental illness look like? Panorama & the Great Disability Scam

29 Jan

Panorama - The Great Disability Scam

Last night, BBC One’s Panorama presented a half hour documentary on the government’s Work Programme. This was introduced 18 months ago to help people who’ve been out of work for a long time get back into employment. The focus of the documentary was on how this programme was working for those with disabilities – the “hard to place” candidates. It exposed a culture of paid-by-results private providers cherry picking the easiest to help, parking those considered hard to help and insulting attitudes towards clients who who some staff labelled as LTBs – Lazy Thieving Bastards.

When I watched the programme earlier today, I was shocked by the interview with Mark Gould, diagnosed with anxiety and depression and out of work for several years.Panorama - The Great Disability Scam 3 The interviewer, Samantha Poling (pictured left) appeared to goad him into demonstrating behaviour that would make him “look like” he was mentally ill. It’s not an easy segment of the programme to watch.

That sparked a series of tweets, which I’ve collated here (links below), on the subject of what mental illness looks like, how it is perceived by the public and what that means in terms of access to welfare benefits when you’re unable to work – both in terms of the public’s perception of those who don’t “look” ill, and how Atos conducts Work Capability Assessments of people signed off by their own doctors as currently unfit to work. Panorama - The Great Disability Scam 2

I then commented on the fact that what you look like also forms a component of a psychiatric assessment. The Mental State (or Status) Examination includes observations such as whether you have a bizarre hairstyle or unnatural hair colour. I’ve written and tweeted on this before, in the blog post “You can’t dye your hair red”. I look at the contents of the MSE in more detail in these tweets.

It was interesting that the final segment of Panorama ended with an extended shot of a man in a wheelchair making his way slowly up a sloping street. That, it seems, is how people view disability.

Hope you find my tweets interesting. The best part, of course, is the responses of others. All the links are below.

If you have any comments on the post or the programme, please feel free to add them below. I’ll include new tweets that come in by updating the Storify story.



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Mental health & Atos: my doctor says I need to rest my brain, but Atos says I must jump through mental hoops

12 Nov

I’ve been feeling strange for a few days, building up from when the Atos letter dropped onto my doormat. It seems I’m struggling to face the Atos process.

My brain feels overloaded by the thought of it, and that prevents any action. I’m focussing on trying to bring myself back to calmness. Hopefully at some point soon I will be able to get a little further than picking up the letter, turning the form over in my hands, feeling overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the task at hand & all the various permutations & the implcations of getting it wrong … then having to put it back down and leave the room & distract myself with something restful. I’m just not up to it now, and I know I shouldn’t be putting myself through this.

My recovery so far is based on listening to myself and knowing when I can do more and when I should be resting. I tried to take on too much earlier in the year and it backfired.

I don’t want that to happen again. So I’m trying to take baby steps. I should be resting my brain now. But I know the Atos timetable is ticking down. The deadline is looming …

[Here’s a link to a Storify story on this topic]

My tweets on the topic