Thursday, 12 December 2013

“How to Get a Council House”

**This post was written back in August.**

This blog is supposed to be an outlet, so this post is a bit random as I'm writing it purely because of all the feelings jumbling around in me. It's difficult to talk to anyone about something from the past and find it worthwhile doing so. I don't even know how I'd want anyone to react that would be satisfying in any way. I suppose if someone understands how difficult and/or frightening something was for me, and seems genuinely shocked at the situation it's a start – that good old concept of validation. Because the agencies I went to for help at various points – most notably mental health services – were so dismissive I began to question my own perceptions. But it was hard to know what someone else would do in my shoes, as no-one seemed to have had the problems I did.

Anyway, I watched last week's “How to Get a Council House” on Channel 4. This episode focussed on homelessness and emergency housing. I don't really know why I watched it; I think partly a grim fascination as I've been homeless and did not have a good experience with the local council. I also feel the need to keep track of how the right-wing propoganda machine is presenting poor people. Since watching it I've been on edge and tied in knots inside, feeling a general sense of anger, injustice and being trapped.

The story that got to me was of a woman with two children who was fleeing domestic violence, and was given a council flat fairly swiftly. Now I am not going to pick apart her situation, but the attitude of staff is another matter. There seemed to be ingrained prejudice, not of the kind you can stick an 'ism' on and legislate against, but that insiduous 'deserving or undeserving' split based on first impressions and (mis)understanding. It doesn't help that the housing allocation policy relies on this catergorising and political buzzwords like
domestic violence. Fleeing your home due to domestic violence or threats of domestic violence means you are automatically considered to be 'priority need', and thus the council have a legal duty to house you temporarily (hostel, B&B) and in the long term. You get boosted up the waiting list too, so will get a settled place much sooner than others.

Now, I understand the need for a swift exit from a violent situation, as well as the need for somewhere to call 'home' after distressing events. But why are other issues less important? Mental health issues are not automatically considered a basis for 'priority need' (it's discretionary), despite the overwhelming evidence that lack of a home both causes and exacerbates mental health problems, as well as the risk to life through suicide. The answer is the same as with most social welfare issues: lack of joined-up thinking in government and pandering to social prejudice in order to score political points. (At particularly bleak moments I have suspected there actually is joined-up thinking, of a sordid and underhand nature, designed to eliminate us 'undesirables'. Evil or inept? Hmm.)

There was also a couple with a child, who had to leave their flat as the man's former partner was named on the tenancy, rather than the couple. When the man went to the housing office, the difference in treatment was painfully apparent. He was quizzed as to where his former partner now lived, and told them she owned a house elsewhere. The housing officer already seemed quite accusatory at this point, and on contacting the ex-partner this seemed to be justified – she informed them she jointly owned a house with her ex. That meant the council had no duty to house him. So he was interrogated further, forced to sign a statement, and pretty much accused of fraud. At this point he looked nervous and admitted perhaps he owned a house and didn't remember. This seemed like a semi-confession of guilt, until they looked up the land registry, which showed that the house belonged entirely to his ex.

At this point the housing officer gave a sort of non-apology (“I'm sorry if you feel you've been accused...”) and her manner became nicer. But – hold on a minute! She had interrogated this poor guy, presumably already hugely stressed about his family's upcoming homelessness, to the point where he thought he might have bought a house and not remembered it. How many others are forced into 'confessing' in this manner, making them ineligible for housing? Well, certainly not the woman who was applying on the basis of domestic violence. She was treated with kindness and understanding. There didn't appear to be many questions asked about the situation – even the odd elements like how did her ex get into the house? (she claimed to have woken up with him attacking her), or her refusal to go into temporary accomodation and decision to stay with her mother instead (having somewhere to stay, even if it's overcrowded, usually means you are in slightly less priority than someone in a B&B or with nowehere at all). They did check that a domestic violence report had been made to the police, but all that proves is that she made a report. Now I'm not suggesting she's lying; rather making the point that she was treated as 'innocent until proven guilty', whilst others were not. And the reason for this is prejudice; a complicated prejudice that dictates the meaning of words like 'vulnerable' and that old chestnut, 'deserving'.

I know someone who fled domestic violence. I don't know all the details, but she had a newborn at the time, so went into a women's refuge and was given a council house sometime later. Being a young mum, she was entitled to benefits without looking for work, so was able to take advantage of training opportunities. She is now self-employed, married to a lovely man, and has another baby. (For the record, we were both first homeless at around the same time, though in completely different areas).

I am pleased that life has worked out for her, but it hurts inside that I can't be like that. I can't look back and say that going into a hostel was the bleakest time of my life (being asked to leave one would be a contender though) and trace a journey up from there, as I snuggle my new baby and smile at my husband. I don't mean to sound bitter, I'm just hurting, because I too have struggled and been brave and fought on and tried my best, but was not given the same opportunities. Instead, I was forced to keep re-living the same struggles again and again, leaving me with more weird baggage than the London Underground lost property department. And of course the weird baggage also makes the possibility of that career, newborn and husband ever more unlikely. (Gah! I'm such a bad feminist..!)

When I approached the council for emergency housing, facing anti-social behavoir and threats of violence in my home, I was told I'd be 'intentionally homeless' (thus not eligible for housing) if I moved out (This was not true). I had already tried to find a room to let in the private sector, but as a 19 year old on benefits this was virtually impossible. When I approached the police, with a view to removing the person in question from the property, they informed me they couldn't do anything because he had mental health problems, so they'd never be able to convict him (this is also not true, but complex). For the record, I had initially called the mental health services, thinking the guy needed help – but they just told me to call the police. Eventually, things came to a head, and the threats were played out as this man tried to throttle my boyfriend. It was terrifying; in panic, I called 999. The police took half an hour to arrive, by which time my landlady and her friend had appeared and managed to calm the guy down. No one was willing to make a statement except me, so they police wouldn't do anything. (I was livid with my boyfriend, he just said he didn't want to be 'mixed up with the police').

A few years later, in an entirely different situation, I was accepted into a homeless hostel on a temporary basis whilst they decided if I was 'priority need' or not. They decided that I wasn't and asked me to leave the hostel, knowing I had nowhere to go to (despite frantically searching for rooms to rent and jobs). I was told I was lucky to have a week's notice as it was usually just one day. The letter I received from the council stated that despite my mental health issues I was “intelligent and capable” thus not vulnerbale enough to be deemed a priority. Presumably they believed me to be so incredibly intelligent and capable that I could magic rooms to rent and landlords willing to accept housing benefit. And we all know that intelligence just whisks away mental health problems and suicidal feelings, don't we?! Another choice phrase from that letter was than I was “known to make demands of services”. It didn't even say “
unreasonable demands”, but the implication was there. I had dared to ask the mental health services for treatment when mentally ill, and the council for a temporary hostel place when homeless! Gosh! - they'd never dare be so demanding in my position now, would they?

I did not fit the poster-child image of politically loaded welfare policies. I could have completely fallen through the net – as many do – because people assume the welfare safety-net catches all, and if you're not getting help it's by choice or lack of effort*. And it's that lack of validation – as well as knowing I was 'on my own' – that really hurts to this day. I wholeheartedly thank those few individuals who showed real concern for my situation, even though their hands were tied as far as practical help goes. Bearing in mind that in the area of trauma, lack of support is the strongest indicator that someone will be more severely affected by the trauma, and you begin to see why the smallest scrap of understanding means so much in the long run.

For the record, I found a room to rent less than 24hrs before I had to leave the hostel. Although I had been searching the whole time I was in there, I was also unemployed and only got the room because I had managed to get a job the day before. So, a big dollop of luck in there, as well as my efforts. But I only managed to keep going because I was terrified – I wasn't actually coping at all, and couldn't deal with how I felt. Which is why it came back to haunt me.



*This is getting worse due to benefit-bashing propaganda and cuts to welfare spending. Not even gonna start on that here... Grr!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Stuff going on right now...

As I begin to write this, I am awaiting a call from the council's housing department. I am currently applying, with urgency, for a social property. The person I have just spoken to - and saw in person last week - is concerned about my mental health and felt he needed to contact the Crisis Team. I tried to explain that as I am not imminently at risk of suicide/homicide, they will not be interested, and that they are supposed to be an alternative to hospital admission. I'm not about to be admitted to hospital, and funnily enough it's also the Crisis Team who gatekeep psychiatric beds so they would get to make this decision too!

Anyway, the housing bloke called back to ask for my GP's phone number. This means the Crisis Team have said I'm the GP's responsibility. I am now waiting for it to go full circle and the GP to recommend going to A&E... to see the Crisis Team. This is the usual psychiatric merry-go-round of trying to get help when things have taken a turn for the worse, or even a slow decline for the worse. There seems to be an odd rigidity to services that relies heavily on first impressions. No-one is allowed to get iller, or present different symptoms after their very first assessment, without being made to feel like they are 'putting it on' or 'not trying hard enough'. Even if an initial psychiatric report is full of errors, omissions, misinterpretation and loaded judgements, subsequent contact with mental health services will be viewed in light of it (and subject to confirmation bias).

I've been told many times that I'm “intelligent and resourceful”. Well thank you for the compliment, guys! The problem is they use this to imply that I cannot have a mental health problem – or at least, not one that interferes with day-to-day life (surely the very definition of a mental health problem?). So, I should be using my intelligence and resourcefulness to sort out my problems and basically, just snap out of it! Never mind that I've tried this for years (who would have anything to do with MH services if they didn't have to?!) and it's not worked. Another word that's been bandied about in my vicinity is “articulate”. Thanks again, you flattering minxes! But unfortunately it doesn't matter how eloquently I can describe how I feel, it doesn't get me any closer to solving the problem! Actually, even identifying the problem fully requires therapeutic help. But no, apparently I'm too intelligent, resourceful (how? - I've clearly been messed up by not coping with things that have happened!) and articulate to possibly be struggling. The converse assumption of course, is that people who are mentally ill are all thick and unintelligible, but I doubt a mental health professional would say that (they sometimes act like they think it though... hmm).

The most irritating thing about all this is that they actually delayed my therapy because they were waiting to allocate me a CPN (community psych nurse), as they felt therapy would be so destabilizing I'd need support. Yet at the same time they are expecting me to cope with some incredibly difficult things alone, especially as my CPN has been off sick for six weeks now so I have pretty much no support at all outside therapy. They've said I'm going to get a new CPN, but they've apparently changed the rules on what they do so they're not willing to help with my current major stressors of housing/upcoming homelessness, and evidence for ESA (sickness benefit). So I'm in this terrifying situation of impending destitution whilst those who could help – and should, if they're supposed to be helping me get better – refuse to do so. I'm sure they must help other people with these things, otherwise who is? Are they seriously letting people on their books starve and become homeless?

My housing issue is because the scroungers, known as MP's (the ones who get the taxpayer to pay for their second homes and moat cleaning services) decided that those aged under 35 should only be entitled to enough housing benefit to rent a room. Now some might think this is fair enough and point to working people of the same age who 'can't afford' to rent a self-contained property. However, this fails to take into account that (a) if they really can't afford it, they'd be entitled to some top-up housing benefit themselves, and (b) actually they probably can afford it but don't want to be left with £70 or less to live on after paying the rent, as those on benefits have. Regardless, I'm not actually able to cope with sharing a flat. I've done it in the past, for many years, much to my detriment. Having this flat has been amazing for me, probably the singular most helpful thing for my mental health thus far. It's 'my' place, a place that feels safe, my sanctuary. That kind of thing is important if you don't have much expereince of feeling safe, and are being knocked sideways by the therapy process. I've lived here for two years, and previously was exempt from the under 35 rule due to getting Disability Living Allowance. Because of the stability brought about by having a steady income and my own, safe place to live, I would not qualify for DLA now (or it's replacement, PIP). Even if I did, the professionals wouldn't provide the evidence at this stage.

Anyway, I'm having to apply for a social housing property, which is pretty scary considering the huge demand for one bed flats now since the 'bedroom tax' is making people in social housing downsize. My current rent shortfall is £45 a week, leaving me £26 to live on. Obviously I'm not actually managing that, so my last tiny bit of savings is being eaten up. I'm fucking terrified, I've been assured I won't be homeless but the thought of having to leave my home to go into a hostel or an awful flat far from friends is too much to bear. I don't know how I'd cope going to the greengrocer's down the street without feeling sick and confused trying not to look in the direction of my former flat. Even though in practical terms I'm better off than previous homeless experiences, I don't actually know how to cope with living through it again. I don't know how to take any more pain.

To know that on top of that I'm going to have to cope with signing on and looking for nonexistant work, apply for jobs I can't do, and face workfare of 30hrs a weeks for benefits, and it's a bleak picture. I feel like I'm too late. Everything's come too late to help me. If only they'd started the therapy earlier, I'd have been going through it with the stability of my flat and benefits. Instead I'm expected to suddenly, miraculously be better and able to cope with work, despite not having had treatment yet. And the treatment/therapy is expected to be very distressing and difficult, so actually making the situation worse before it gets better. But nevermind, off to work! It's crazy, I can see myself getting more unwell and unstable, I don't feel brave enough to kill myself yet, and knowing all the pain that is to come is unbearable. They are actually putting me through it all again, the stuff that led me to breakdown in the first place. There's the hanging threat of removing my therapy if I'm too unstable to go through it, yet I'm being forced into that unstable and damaging place by stupid policies from a corrupt system that mental health professionals should be fighting, not endorsing.

I need a miracle, I actually do.

* * *

Anyway, the GP called me, breaking the Crisis Team – GP – A&E – Crisis Team circle of doom. Well, it was the practice manager I think. She offered me an appointment in the morning which I explained I would struggle to get to due to being barely able to get out of bed at the moment, and not sure what the GP could do anyway. This is awful, I know I should have played along and dragged myself in; but knowing from experience it would be futile it seems a total waste of the limited energy I have. Bleughhh. This post sounds really moany, I hope if anyone reads it they understand how bleak my reality is at the moment and don't judge too much. I do try to be positive, I've tried all my life to keep going, help others, and keep picking myself up when things go wrong. I actually thought I'd done really well and was being more kind to myself and coping better with things, but unfortunately most of that was to do with the stability of home and income I had for a short while. Also, mental health professionals – bar the therapist – seem to be expert at showing you you're actually a worthless waste of space who should snap out of it, the moment you try and have some healing self-compassion.

Waiting for a miracle...

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Madness and Mentalism

I've no idea, as I start writing, where this post is is going.  I'm seething inside at something a friend (I'll call him 'Q') said last night.  It echoed an attitude I have encountered in mental health professionals, which was obviously upsetting, even though this time it wasn't aimed at me.  Q is thinking about becoming a mental health nurse, which means I should really try and make him understand... although I did try to point out the gaping flaws in his argument/attitude at the time. 

We were talking about a mutual friend (who I'm much closer to) in the context of me being very stressed out trying to help this friend (I'll call him 'P'.) 

The comment I objected to was about P not really being 'mad' as (apparently) his symptoms don't present in quite the same way as someone who
really has them.  Not that he has different symptoms, but that his symptoms are someone not genuine.  At first I was intrigued by this, and questioned how 'real' symptoms would differ, and who Q had met that displayed these symptoms in order to make the comparison.  I assumed he must meet some people with mental health problems in his job as a carer.  However, it turned out he had no-one to make the comparison with, and was simply judging based on a preconceived and uninformed idea of 'madness'.  The implication was that P was entirely responsible for his actions, and should be left to get on with it and “sort himself out” without needing any support. 

This takes us to the 'mad vs bad' debate that lies where mental health and the criminal justice system collide.  (For more on this, see the excellent blog by Mental Health Cop.)  Is someone 'mad' and deserving of sympathy and help, or 'bad' and to be punished for their actions? 
In mental health care, the mad/bad construct is also very relevant, although less to do with punishment (hmm...!) and more about whether someone is 'mad' enough to receive help/a certain level of help, or whether they are capable on their own.  Phrases like 'attention-seeking' are bandied around at this point.  There's also issues around retaining a level of independence, although this seems to be used largely by professionals to refuse all support, rather than in the context of appropriate support and treatment.  A bit like refusing to throw a lifebelt to someone who's drowning because they should be able to swim, rather than throwing them the lifebelt they are screaming for and then teaching them to swim for next time.  Anyway, I digress...  The mad/bad idea can be more helpfully reframed as 'mad, bad or sad', and in this context, if P isn't 'mad', he is most certainly 'sad', so he is surely deserving of support anyway! 

What really annoyed me about dismissing P's symptoms and difficulties in this way was that it relied upon a completely stereotyped and stigmatizing view of what a 'mad' person is like.  Q actually pointed out that P isn't constantly displaying symptoms and can interact with others in a perfectly ordinary way (ignoring the fact that P doesn't socialise when unable to, and his problems manifest in odd episodes of a few seconds to a few days).  A 'mad' person, according to Q's viewpoint, should be obviously identifiable all the time.  As if there is a massive difference between 'normal' and 'mad' people, rather than just people, who sometimes hurt a lot or get messed up by life.  Incidentally, some of the most striking things that might be used to identify someone as 'mad' – such as confused or slow speech – are actually side-effects of psychiatric medication.  Sadly, the opposite of being dismissed as not needing help is often being placed in the box marked “severe and enduring”, given drugs, and removed from any meaningful use of the word 'recovery'. 

Another very relevant issue was summed up by something else Q said: that P is, apparently, “just a mad person”.  Yes, that does directly contradict the above, which is why mental health professionals and would-be professionals should think through this stuff before passing judgement!  Anyway, the comment was made with the implication being “he's just a mad person, why are you bothering with him?”  As if he somehow didn't deserve to be helped as I'd help any other friend, as if the issues he faces don't matter as much, or that problems are to be expected and ignored as natural consequences of being “a mad person”. 

This attitude is unfortunately apparent within the mental health system.  It's evident in the lack of support or sympathy given to (at least some) service users when catastrophic events have pushed their mental health over the edge.  Events like becoming homeless, finding out your partner is cheating on you, or losing a friend to suicide, barely nodded at before the anguish and pain is dismissed as merely a symptom of poor mental health.  After a particularly disturbing series of events last year, I was dragged to A&E in a terrible state to be assessed by the Crisis Team.  Not only did they ignore the huge impact of what had happened (and I have the assurance of several friends that it was something that would knock anyone sideways), but they also offered appalling advice that contained a complete disregard for my welfare and mental state in both the short and long term.  They actually encouraged me to put myself in a situation where I'd be repeating previous traumas and failing to learn from past mistakes.  Dickheads.
It's all linked to 'mentalism', which is connected to 'ableism'.  Without going into too much detail, this sums up what I'm getting at: 
 
mentalism at one extreme can lead to a categorical dividing of people into an empowered group assumed to be normal, healthy, reliable, and capable, and a powerless group assumed to be sick, disabled, crazy, unpredictable, and violent.  This divide can justify inconsiderate treatment of the latter group and expectations of poorer standards of living for them, for which they may be expected to express gratitude.
The discrimination can be so fundamental and unquestioned that it can stop people truly empathizing (although they may think they are) or genuinely seeing the other point of view with respect.  (Source: Wikipedia)

With reference to the above incident, I seriously doubt those members of the Crisis Team were advising me in the same way they would if I was their daughter or a friend.  But to them, I was just an overreacting, attention-seeking mental person.  To them, I didn't deserve to be treated with respect or be helped to find a way forward that wouldn't put me in a vulnerable position.  Instead I was to be ushered away as quickly as possible with vague and unhelpful platitudes.  

Sometimes these mental health gurus (snigger) go one step further and actually use distressing life situations as diagnostic indicators.  Things like having a 'chaotic' lifestyle or relationship difficulties can be viewed as resulting from personality disorder, and the resulting distress can also be passed off as a 'symptom'.  (This is dodgy territory, littered with self-fulfilling prophecies.)  The individual had no support in coping with their – quite legitimate – distress, or with improving their situation, and is in fact blamed for their own misfortune.  Even if the difficulties they face do go hand-in-hand with their mental health issues, it doesn't make them any less difficult or traumatic (retraumatization is also an issue).  Instead, it merely highlights the urgent need for treatment and ongoing support. 

Anyway, back to P.  I am trying to help P access treatment (a process worthy of a whole new blog, and also a surprise for me that psychosis and severe trauma symptoms are not taken seriously either – I thought it was just us neurotics who were messed around!)  I am also trying to help P with a situation that's arisen due to his mental health issues.  So, going back to the “just a mental person” comment, does that mean I shouldn't help him as these problems are 'only' a result of mental illness?  Should I leave him to suffers in a downward spiral and then assuage any twinges of guilt by suddenly changing tack and declaring him 'sane' and thus responsible for the situation?  
I don't think so! 
When you consider the prevalence of trauma in the development of mental disorders, and that the stigma surrounding them can be more debilitating than the original symptoms, it's obvious that society (that's us!) needs to take responsibility.  Not only is it grossly unfair to ignore the plight of individuals who are already suffering, it's also blindingly counter-productive.  If someone is treated as a 'loser', a 'weirdo', or an 'attention-seeker', is isolated, denied opportunities and forced to live in stressful and/or traumatic circumstances, their mental health is more likely to get worse than better.  Refusing to help those who are suffering, dehumanizing and even blaming them, not only perpetuates the cycle of trauma and disadvantage, it also shows a twisted lack of humanity. 
And that is the scariest psychological symptom out there.  



**Since I started writing this post I've had a chat with Q and he's 'seen the light'!  Or something.  Which means I should probably be slower to judge (or quicker to write...!)**

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Update...

I've not posted for a long time; not because I haven't felt the need to rant but because it's been harder to get my thoughts together to do so.  This is partly because I was abroad for a few months, which required much organisation, and partly because whenever I start to ponder mental health issues I find myself hopping mad over the way services let me down and can't think straight. 
This seems to be worse over recent months – although that's probably because I seem to be remembering more and more, each little incident or spiteful comment a little niggling wound that won't get better.  I imagine this blog will end up being a hugely ranty but therapeutic outlet – hopefully at least as satisfying as putting the crisis team in stocks, though not as swift. 

In other news:
  • The extreme fatigue and inability to do practically anything I was suffering turned out to be due to low iron and a severe vitamin D deficiency.  Apparently in northern Europe the sun isn't actually strong enough for half the year (on the rare occasions we see it!) for our bodies to make vitamin D, so deficiencies are widespread.  The grey summer and hiding indoors too much didn't help either.  (Sun exposure needed per day is half an hour on your face and forearms). 
  • I discovered the concept of 'emotional flashbacks' which has been the singular most useful piece of psychological information I have ever learned.  I have no idea why no-one I've seen in a mental health setting has ever mentioned the concept to me.  Perhaps because then they'd have to stop writing me off as a waste of time...
Now I'm just trying to keep the Jobcentre happy as I'm still living at the mercy of the government, and trying to figure out a way to make money from the creative stuff I do.  Not an easy task, but easier than miraculously suddenly being able to cope with a normal job...  Gah!  Being completely at odds with society would be easier if you didn't have to make a living...