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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Daily Mail, Benefits Street and the ignorance surrounding mental illness

The Daily Mail has a habit of upsetting me on all sorts of topics. What they have recently written however affects me personally. They have written an article with the following headline: ‘‘The only person who should be depressed is the taxpayer’: How can Benefits Street’s White Dee appear repeatedly on TV but is allegedly TOO ILL to work?’’ (their emphasis not mine).

For anyone who doesn’t know, White Dee appeared on the channel 4 programme ‘Benefits Street’ which documents the life of people living on benefits on James Turner Street. White Dee says that she is unable to work due to suffering from depression and possibly bipolar. Since appearing on the show she has made several TV appearances to talk about the issues raised by the programme. The other day, a Telegraph journalist suggested on the discussion show that White Dee appears ‘too happy’ to be depressed. Now this Daily Mail article implies that White Dee cannot possibly be depressed as she has appeared on TV.

I guess the first point to make is how inflammatory the heading is. It sets ‘the taxpayer’ apart from and against those with disabilities. It implies that ‘the taxpayer’ should feel outraged by someone who says they are depressed claiming benefits. It implies that it is quite reasonable to suppose that someone who says they are depressed is actually lying just to claim benefits.

Now I wrote a blog post the other day talking about the guilt and shame that I experience surrounding my mental illness and my inability to work. From my experience, almost everyone I have come across with mental health problems wants to work but can’t. They are not trying to get something for nothing. They have a debilitating illness which they often feel that they should have control over. However mental illness is not like that. It can affect anyone and from out of nowhere. It is a medical condition and deserves to be recognised as such.

The number of people claiming benefits fraudulently is estimated to be less than 1%. So yes, there will be the occasional case where someone is lying to get benefits but this is overwhelmingly not the case. Most people claiming sickness benefits are not making a lifestyle choice but are struggling with a medical condition which prevents them working.

So back to the case of White Dee. She is just one individual with depression who I have never met before so I cannot say with absolute certainty that she is telling the truth. What I can say is that, like most people who say they are depressed, she is unlikely to be making it up. No one wants to get tarnished with the mental illness brush. There is still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness.

What I can also say is that people with depression may be perfectly capable of acting normally on certain days. They may be perfectly capable of appearing on a TV show on days that they are well. People with mental health problems are used to having to put on a front to the outside world to be accepted. They may therefore appear ‘normal’ on TV despite having mental health difficulties.

The important point to make is that White Dee may be capable of making the odd appearance on a TV show without being capable of holding down a job. She may be able to cope with this kind of pressure but not the pressure of employment. Remember that full time employment requires one to be able to focus on a task 37 odd hours a week. It requires good social skills, high concentration and most importantly consistency. You have to be able to work set times. A job does not allow for you to have large numbers of days off sick. And that is what having a mental health condition often entails. You may have some good days but also many bad days where you can’t function. You would simply would lose your job if you kept having to take sick days.

It is sad that some people think that people with mental health conditions cannot possibly be ill because of how they appear to act on the outside. Many people with mental health conditions struggle internally but are able to put on a brave face. It is an unfortunate fact that people too readily judge people for not being able to work without fully knowing their circumstances and the obstacles which they face. 

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