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Stephen Weatherhead

This is your brain on benefits

18 November 2016 | by Stephen Weatherhead

As a clinical psychologist specialising in brain injury, the people I work with regularly come into contact with the benefits system. Usually this is because they are physically, cognitively or psychologically less able to work than they were prior to their brain injury.

I’ve always known the system is inadequate, and the assessment processes don’t really account for the significant impact psychological or cognitive difficulties can have on a person. I’ve tended to ‘do my bit’ on a case-by-case basis; supporting people with appointments, reports, and any other way I can help to ensure the assessors understand the needs of the person they are assessing.

It isn’t easy though and I am increasingly witnessing the negative impact our welfare benefits system is having on the people we are supposed to be here to help.

Two clients in particular stand out in my memory. I worked with both of them in 2014 and use pseudonyms here.

‘Mike’ was the first client of mine who I was aware of needing to access a foodbank. Given the rising numbers of people experiencing food poverty, it’s not surprising that I’d come across this at some point. However Mike’s case particularly affected me because he had two children of very similar ages to mine, and all of this was happening as we were approaching Christmas.

The second person, ‘Kate’ was recovering from a very serious brain injury and was having that experience where she wanted to achieve things she’d never done before. In this case, it became a huge ambition of hers to complete a 5k. This was a great ‘in’ for me as a therapist, because I run a bit and so thought it might be great therapy to do our sessions whilst building up her fitness in the local park.

Unfortunately the intervention got derailed when Kate became fearful that her neighbours would report her to the DWP because she had been deemed unable to work. She was understandably worried that if she was seen walking, she would be seen as fit for work. She clearly wasn’t, but the fear was a rationale one and the impact could have been huge.

Kate and Mike made me feel determined to see what I could do to help change our system, as well as continuing to support the people who are on the receiving end of it.

It is great that the BPS is trying to shift policy here by contributing to the DWP Joint Work and Health Units new policy development, meeting with other stakeholders, producing briefing papers, statements, and calls to action.

There have been some changes announced recently but we need to continue to be vocal on this issue. We must continue to speak out as a profession based on our psychological evidence and challenge any policies which may be having a detrimental impact on a person’s psychological wellbeing.

As an individual clinician, I’m trying too. I am part of the group who contribute to the writing of BPS documents in this area and we collaborated on the development of a conference on ‘Psychologists and the benefits system’. We need to find strength through unity in calling for policy change where it is needed ; unity as a professional group, united with people who have lived experience of our systems.

We need to also support individuals within the benefits system. If a client of yours is about to undergo a DWP assessment or an appeal, my first advice would be to do all you can to give a good clinical overview of the person’s presentation and needs; both in written form via a report and when accompanying them to any DWP appointments. Where you doubt the message has been heard, escalate upwards in the system.

Citizens Advice have some useful information here.

CPAG are also really excellent, and here is a link to a blog about PIP on the CPAG website.

The specific things I’d love to see the BPS produce would be some guidance for us as clinicians on the practical and ethical elements of engaging with DWP processes and a section on the BPS register which allows us to say if we’d be willing to accompany people to DWP assessments.

In short, my message for all of us as psychologists is: If we are to support our clients and the psychological wellbeing of our society, we must also use our skills to affect change in our systems.

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