Am I eligible for free mental health care? How would I know?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘So how long have you been having these irrational thoughts?” I pause to think this through. It’s important to give the correct answer. I have to strike just the right balance with the kind lady from the Mental Health Access Team who has phoned to assess me. If she thinks I’m not mentally unstable enough, she will not refer me for free counselling. If she thinks I’m too mentally unstable, she might call in the social and tell them to take my kids away. Would she actually do that? On balance, probably not. Nevertheless, I must tread carefully.
 
I immediately decide against the honest answer, which is that I don’t think my depression is “irrational” at all. It is based on hard facts, many of them scientifically provable. First, our flat is too small for a family of four. Second, there is now officially no chance of us ever being able to move out. Third, our joint incomings do not match our outgoings and we have no savings or pensions. Fourth, the government has no interest in making things better for families like us – or, indeed, anyone other than their Old Etonian buddies. Fifth, the destruction of the environment continues unchecked, with consequences that are likely to prove utterly disastrous for humanity within my children’s lifetime.
 
I’d argue, on balance, that this is reason enough to feel legitimately less than 100 per cent zip-a-dee-doo-dah. On the other hand, whatever your circumstances, your glass could always be half full. No doubt it is partly the way I am perceiving the difficulties which makes them feel insurmountable. If I were more of a can-do type of personality, I’d be out there doing a jolly tap-dance on the grave of Europe’s bee populations.
 
“It started a couple of months ago. The baby stopped sleeping. We were buying a house and then it fell through . . .” I give her the sorry list of symptoms: the exhaustion, the creeping insomnia, the almost constant snivelling. She sounds pleasingly concerned. This is going well.
 
“Any suicidal feelings?”
 
Gosh. Funnily enough I did catch myself lying in bed the other day, thinking how nice it would be never to have to get up ever again, never to have to deal with another unexpected bill or another broken night . . . but it was more an idle thought than an active planning-to-kill-myself thing. Does that count as suicidal? I’m not sure.
 
“No,” I say firmly. “Not at all.”
 
“Good,” she says briskly. “So what I’m going to do is recommend that you come in for a full assessment session with one of our mental health nurses. You should receive a letter in the post.”
 
“Great. Thank you.” Result! I can’t wait for them to make me better again. “And how long will it take to get the appointment?”
 
“It shouldn’t be more than six weeks.”
 
SIX WEEKS!!! I can’t wait six weeks. Curly is on the brink of disowning me. I’m on the brink of disowning myself. I take a deep breath. “Right. Well, thank you very much for your help.” As I hang up, the tears have already formed a puddle on the keypad.
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.