I think that there is a huge problem with how the mainstream media portray people with mental illness, people on benefits and people that fall in to both categories.
On this topic, the BBC have just published an article with the following headline: ‘Agoraphobic benefits cheat Tracy Johnson jailed for year’. Apparently Tracy Johnson claimed to have a number of mental health conditions. These included anxiety, depression, PTSD, hallucinations and agoraphobia. However, she was found to be working as a tour guide in South America. She was charged with falsely claiming £48000 in benefits. It was argued that she could not possibly be agoraphobic, or suffering from the conditions she said she suffered from, if she was able to travel the world. You can read the article at the following link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-27130728
There are a few things I want to say about this case and the way it has been reported. At the outset I want to make clear that I do not know if the correct verdict was reached; I do not know all the details of the case. Ms Johnson very well may have been fraudulently claiming benefits. However, there are a few problems I have with the coverage of this case and the way the article, the judge and the prosecutor have portrayed people more generally with mental illness who depend on benefits.
First of all, the article refers to Tracy Johnson living a “champagne lifestyle” because she has managed to travel to some holiday locations. There are two problems I have with this. First of all it implies that people are able to sustain elaborate lifestyles on benefits alone. This idea is misguided. The benefits system really isn’t as generous as many seem to think. It is hard enough to qualify for any incapacity benefits in the first place. The way that the Work Capability Assessments are set up makes it very hard for people with mental health problems to be found as unfit for work. If you do qualify the money isn’t enough to live a life of luxury on. It is enough money that the government believes you can just about survive on.
The second related problem I have with this use of the term “champagne lifestyle” is the idea that anyone who is able to travel must be incredibly wealthy. Of course this is not the case. People choose how to spend their money depending on their priorities and for many a holiday is an important part of life. A benefit claimant may choose to use money from their benefits to travel to take a break and recuperate. This does not suddenly make them wealthy or extravagant.
The prosecution implied that if you have a mental health problem and you are on benefits, you should not be able to travel. As Ms Johnson herself says: ‘I am entitled to a little break. I think I'm entitled to go and sit on a beach in Goa.’ Of course she is. As long as she is not fraudulently claiming benefits obviously. People are entitled to spend their money (earned or through benefits) on what they see fit. Again, as she herself says: ‘you can sit on a beach in Goa watching the sunset and still be in a pretty desperate state’. Just the fact of going on a holiday when you have a mental illness does not mean that you are fraudulently claiming those benefits. Mental health conditions affect different people in different ways.
At one point the article states that ‘Johnson, who has also written novels, had posted on Facebook: "I am one spoilt girl”’. I am not sure what the relevance of the fact that Ms Johnson has written novels is. The subtle message seems to be something like this: of course Ms Johnson could not suffer from mental health conditions. She writes! People who are mentally ill are obviously incapable of writing or of any activity for that matter. We just sit around in a daze staring at walls all day. Better to lock us all up and make sure we never take a foot outdoors. No writing or travelling for us.
The prosecutor sums up his case by saying that: “Tracy Johnson was living the life that honest, decent, hard working taxpayers could only dream of. While workers were going out to do their daily grind, she was shopping in New York or having a few days in Madrid.” Those on benefits have heard this kind of rhetoric before. The ‘hard working taxpayer’ is once again held up as the paradigm of virtue compared to the scrounging person on benefits. The indication being that those on benefits should be bloody grateful for what they get. If they are not fraudsters they are still an ‘other’ to the decent taxpayer. They don’t deserve holidays or respect for that matter. The language and the message are divisive and cruel.
People with mental health problems often find themselves incapable of working. They are forced to rely on other people for help. However, that help doesn’t come for free. There is a huge stigma surrounding those on benefits and the government and the media often portray them as scroungers, burdens on the taxpayer and fraudulent liars. Regardless of whether or not Ms Johnson was fraudulently claiming benefits, the implication of many articles in the media is that this kind of fraudulence is widespread. However, the real estimated level of benefits fraud is said to be less than 1%.
To have to deal with this kind of stigma on top of your mental health condition is exhausting and painful. Those with disabilities on benefits are people who deserve to be treated with kindness and respect, not distrust and derision.