Mind are to be congratulated for their work with benefits claimants

I have a habit, on this blog, of criticising the major mental health charities when they undertake activities with which I disagree. I did so most recently a little over a month ago. On that occasion, I expressed disappointment and irritation that Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, through their front organisation Time To Change, had decided to hijack a political speech addressing one of the real, substantive problems faced by those of us who are mentally ill – the impossibility of accessing good quality, timely treatment. They had selected this rare-as-hen’s-teeth chance to get the mainstream media talking about something that blights the lives of many of us (and thus the equally rare-as-hen’s-teeth chance of getting instinctively sympathetic but oblivious members of the public on our side) as the perfect opportunity to issue yet another press release about the relatively (that’s relatively) minor problem of stigma. This had the effect of derailing the media coverage, and so indirectly (and probably inadvertently) working against the interests of mentally ill people.

(For the record, I take the view that mentally ill people require, first and foremost, food, clothing, shelter and access to the treatments we need – and that stigma, while it is unquestionably a problem, is relatively minor in comparison. And, futhermore, I think that charities that claim to work for our interests ought to prioritise the problems we face in order of severity – and thus get to the relatively minor matter of stigma only once mentally ill people are no longer sleeping rough, or starving half to death in inadequate accommodation that damages physical health, and only once mental health services receive a level of funding appropriate to the level of need in the population. I’m not unsympathetic to the problem of stigma, or unaware of the fact that it damages the lives of many of us, but it doesn’t damage our lives as much as the other stuff.)

So, for these reasons, I was very pleased to see a news story placed reasonably prominently on The Guardian‘s homepage which drew attention to some excellent work being done by Oxfordshire Mind (one of the local branches of the national charity).

Oxfordshire Mind have been running a service called Better Benefits for Mental Health since 2008. It appears that the service began more as benefits helpline, but with the rolling out of the Work Capability Assessment to everyone who receives a disability- or health-related benefit, has gradually become a service guiding people through the labyrinthine process of securing access to the money they ought to be getting:

“Over the past few years our resources have had to shift massively into supporting people through appeals. That’s time-consuming, complex and detailed work,” says [Patrick] Taylor [Chief Executive of Oxfordshire Mind].

It seems that the service has a 98% success rate in appeals, which is simultaneously a tribute to their effectiveness, and a demonstration of just how unfit-for-purpose the DWP/ Atos process is.

This is precisely the kind of thing I think the major mental health charities should be involved in, and I’m delighted to see that they are. I’m also delighted to see they they’ve been successful in securing additional funding – the (curiously precise) grant of £336,078 announced by the Big Lottery Fund was the reason for the press coverage. But the thing I’m probably most delighted by is the skilful way Oxfordshire Mind managed to use the coverage as a way of drawing attention to things that badly need attention drawing to them. From The Guardian article:

“The assessment itself is flawed because you’re asking someone to go in and speak to a complete stranger about their most personal fears,” [David] Bryceland [Better Benefits for Mental Health project manager] says. “They don’t want to admit that they haven’t washed in five days or that they’ve spent half their day in the corner of the room because they’re so paranoid the police are coming to get them.”

[…]

Last year, the court of appeal upheld a ruling that the WCA disadvantages people with mental health problems. Oxfordshire Mind is calling for it to be scrapped altogether.

That’s a masterclass in effective use of the media right there – exploiting journalistic interest in a funding announcement to draw attention to the scale of a problem that mostly escapes attention (the plight of mentally ill benefits claimants), and then going a step further by pointing out the underlying, systemic causes of the problem (that the assessment process for claiming benefits disadvantages mentally ill people).

And what a complete contrast with the January farrago! Back then, Time to Change (which is to say, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness) used an announcement about something else entirely as an excuse to draw attention towards themselves, and away from a widespread and acute problem. Here and now, Oxfordshire Mind use an announcement about their funding deal to draw attention away from themselves and towards the widespread and acute problem. (What makes that especially impressive in this case is that The Guardian journalist was blatantly pursuing another angle altogether – that benefit cuts themselves are inducing mental health problems in otherwise healthy people. Sticking sufficiently to their guns to get their own angle across – that the benefits cuts are being handled in a way that specifically disadvantages mentally ill people – in the final article is a remarkable achievement.)

I do always try to be fair, and this is in fact not the first time that I’ve congratulated Mind for doing necessary and important work. So long as they keep doing such work, this won’t be the last time I congratulate them either. But there is another point I have to make here.

This was one local Mind organisation, able to do good work helping people in one part of the country, thanks to a grant of £300k. How much good could the national charity do if it switched its very much larger resources away from commissioning ad agencies to produce glossy campaigns on soft social problems like stigma, and put that money towards helping actual mentally ill people at the sharp end of society instead? As Oxfordshire Mind have just eloquently demonstrated, it’s not a question of either doing practical, day-to-day work supporting mentally ill people or maintaining a campaigning presence in the national media on behalf of mentally ill people. It’s perfectly possible to do both simultaneously – in fact, to use the day-to-day work as the means by which you get the campaign into the national media.

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