Having gone through the often extremely stressful experience of a DWP medical assessment, those claiming benefits then have to deal with the resulting report: a report that may bare no resemblance to what actually happened in the examination.
[TW: mentions addiction, eating disorders and mental health]
As a fairly new employee at Bench Outreach, I’d heard some horror stories about the lies told in medical assessment reports about vulnerable clients before. This happens when the assessor makes assumptions or miscommunicates a claimant’s medical problems, affecting their benefits claims. I had not seen it myself until very recently, and it was quite an unpleasant surprise.
Recently, a client I had accompanied to an ESA medical assessment received the resulting medical report in the post. I was totally shocked to read the contents. It did not properly represent their severe mental health problems or alcohol addiction at all.
As I mentioned in a previous post about medical assessments, some clients get extremely anxious and can not handle the environment of the assessment very well at all. The client I accompanied was shaking, sweating and could not understand simple questions as they would normally be able to.* The client needed prompting, reassuring and supporting during the assessment itself, which I was able to help with. They were wearing unclean clothes, including a stained t shirt, and looked very unwell due to lack of sleep and mental health.
The report said ‘coped well with assessment.’ It said ‘was well-dressed’. It said ‘behaved normally.’
These stock answers totally undermine the stress and strain of the assessment for the client, and misrepresent their severe mental health problems.
This was particularly striking because I had been in the room at the time of the assessment, taking notes right in front of the assessor. The idea that they could then write something that did not represent what actually happened, despite having a witness there, is particularly worrying for those who do not have anyone to go with them. For those without an advice worker to provide that support and to challenge the decision made, the system seems particularly harsh. It can even seem exploitative of the vulnerable position of those who do not have the understanding or stability to challenge a decision confidently.
Mental Health is still not being taken seriously.
There were several assumptions made based on the physical health of the client. This is far too common. For example, the report said the client ‘can brush their teeth daily.’ The client, while physically able, suffers severely from self-neglect as they do not have the willpower or mental well being to look after their self. They do not brush their teeth, and say they can barely wash due to depression.
The client also emphasised their suicidal feelings strongly in the assessment, but the report played this down, saying the client had ‘lack of intent’ as they had previously changed their mind about attempts to take their own life. This massively undermined the risk of suicide for this client, who regularly calls me to say they are feeling suicidal.
For this client and so many others, just getting through each day is a huge achievement. To juggle extra commitments like work-related activities, which have been assigned to this particular client following the assessment, can really push someone over the edge if their mental health is not stable.
Not only might they have work-related requirements to fulfil, but their money will be affected if they do not carry these out. Sanctions can be placed on those who do not fulfil requirements, which leads to them getting even less money from their benefits. The loss of income can in turn dangerously affect mental health, and the cycle continues.
The national conversation about mental health is definitely improving but we have such a long way to go. Judging by this and so many other medical reports, mental health still is not seen as a good enough reason to not be able to do basic tasks. It is still not seen as debilitating, despite obvious evidence that it can be.
We have seen similar cases surrounding eating disorders and substance or alcohol abuse. These illnesses are not seen as ‘bad enough’, as they are often invisible. There was a blatant lack of empathy from the assessor who saw my client surrounding his alcoholism. The monotone voice and tired expression was by no means encouraging, and I’m sure for many would have discouraged them from fully explaining their situation. For those with issues surrounding addiction, this is not a supportive environment and the feelings of guilt or embarrassment experienced by many with these problems could easily surface, inhibiting a decent assessment.
What can you do?
Things may seem impossibly difficult, but there are some things you can do to help. Never underestimate the power of individual actions!
- Write to your MP. The more we bring this problem up in parliament, the more likely we are to see change. You can find out who your MP is and their email address by clicking here, and if you need some help knowing what to say, you can copy and paste this template letter to email them, to raise your voice and encourage your MP to make a difference.
- Support local charities! (OK, so we’re biased, but hear me out!) Charities often don’t have the resources to accompany clients to their assessments. It’s always good to have an adviser or a volunteer to go with a client and hold the assessor accountable. Could you offer your time to go and help out? If you don’t have time but can donate money, that’s always hugely appreciated as well. Find out how to support Bench Outreach here.
- Share our posts and other news/articles you come across. Social media can actually be a good thing sometimes! So many people aren’t aware of these problems- I’ll confess that before I worked for Bench, neither was I. There are people suffering without a voice; use your online presence to amplify their voices. And your offline presence- start a conversation, get chatting!
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*This client gave permission to be mentioned anonymously.