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14 December 2012

You are not a scrounger: a letter to a disabled reader

A letter to a reader in crisis.

By Laurie Penny

Dear M-, 

A few days ago you wrote to me and told me you were planning to take your own life. You told me that your reasons for this are: because you are frightened about what will happen to you when you lose the disability living allowance you rely on to live independently, and because you want to take a stand against the government’s assault on welfare. 

Since receiving your letter I’ve agonised over what sort of reply to send to you. I hope you found the strength to call one of the helplines I forwarded – Samaritans in particular are a life-saving service – but I felt that something longer was needed, is still needed. I’m writing to you now not as a journalist, but as a human being, a former carer and a person who has experienced depression to say: please, please don’t do this.

I’m writing like this, in public, in part because you spoke about taking your own life as a political statement. You asked if I, as a journalist you respected, would report on your suicide after the fact. I’ve been told by fellow campaigners in the disability rights movement that you’re not alone in thinking that harming yourself in that awful, final way is the only way you have left to make a difference. But that’s not the case. Not yet, not ever.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a physical disability. Having dear friends with physical disabilities only makes me more aware of how many parts of that experience I can’t fully understand. I don’t know what it’s like to be mobility impaired, or to have a body that seizes up with pain on a regular basis. Nor do I know what it’s like to wake up one morning and be told that, because you can’t hold down a regular 9-5 office job no matter how hard you try, because you can’t do that you are just a burden on the state.

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To my mind, the most venal, wicked thing this Coalition government has done has been to rewrite the social script of this country so that some people feel that life isn’t worth living any more. They speak in their poisonous way about giving the unemployed and disabled people back a sense of dignity – but telling people that they’re worthless unless they hold down a job, telling people that they have no right to a decent standard of living unless they can find and keep work that lines the pockets of the super-rich, work that isn’t there anyway at the moment – that’s the opposite of arguing for dignity. That’s shame as a social manifesto.

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If you hurt yourself now, if you give up right now, I’m sorry to say that it won’t change the minds of those who are currently making decisions about whether sick and mentally people ill live or die in this country. These people don’t give a damn – or at very least, they do a good job of acting like they don’t give a damn. If any person’s unnecessary death were enough to sway this government’s mind, it would have been swayed before now.

Even one death is too many. There are other, better ways to make a difference.

This is the point at which I’m supposed to give you the routine about how It Gets Better. But you and I both know that that would be a lie. We both know that right now, for anyone who is disabled, or mentally ill, or unemployed, or a single parent, or a young person, or a student, or simply poor and struggling, a lot of things are getting actively worse. So no – sometimes it doesn’t get better. What happens instead, as a friend of mine told me recently, is that you get stronger.

Choosing to live doesn’t have to mean choosing to accept the ugly reality that those in power are creating for us. By coming together and working to create change, by building each other up and getting smarter and more adept, you get stronger, we get stronger, people who care enough to resist and fight back and create a different reality get stronger together. You don’t need to be well to be involved in the fightback. The internet has enabled people with all kinds of different experiences of physical and mental health to make their voices heard and join in the struggle against shame and despair as public policy.

I know that right now you probably aren’t feeling very strong and powerful. That’s understandable. But please believe me: you are powerful, and important, and special, and stronger than you know. We’ve never shared a cup of tea together, or laughed together, or hugged each other. I don’t even know what you look like. But I feel like I know you, because I know you feel the same way I feel about what’s going on in this country right now. What I want you to try to understand, if you can just hold on to one thing, is this: you are not a burden. 

No human being is “just a burden”. You are not a burden on the state, and you are not a burden on your family, who, much as you might find this hard to believe, would be devastated to lose you. Your presence makes this country and your family a better place.

I can’t promise you that after you make the choice to carry on living, life will get easier right away, this week, or this month. But I can promise you that one day you will feel stronger, and better able to navigate with the darker, more painful rapids of life. I believe that one day life in this country will be better than it is now, for every person who is disabled and unwell. And one thing I can tell you for sure is that the most important political statement you can make right now is to believe – even if it’s hard to hold on to – that you are not a burden, that you are a precious, unique human person who is valuable in and of himself. 

When society tells you that you are worth less because you are unwell, that’s society’s fault, not yours. They may be pursuing a doctrine of shame, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed. You have no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed. You are not a burden, and you are not a scrounger – you are just unwell.

As an unwell person, you have every right to support, from your family and from society. Please try to hold on to that belief, because right now that belief is the best weapon we have against the austerity consensus. You are not a burden. You are not a scrounger. You are valuable and important because you are human and alive. Believe it. Believe it because that belief is a torch in the darkness of an austerity winter. With love,

Your friend,


Editor’s note: You can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or through their website at We consulted the Samaritans in the editing of this piece.