No desk to call my own: who exactly has “poverty of aspiration” round here?

Another day, another story about the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) “workfare” schemes, where people are made to work at any old job for their state benefits, rather than being paid a wage. We already knew that forcing people into this kind of programme does not lead to improved levels of employment; today’s story is even more disheartening. A survey carried out by Mind found that for people with mental health issues, workfare actually makes it harder for them to become “work ready”, since 83% of participants stated that using the programme had actually made their mental health worse.

It is clear that as far as the Government’s ideas about “improving employability” are concerned there is an over-reliance on the idea that simple barriers stop people who are disabled by mental health conditions from working. Pretty much all the DWP schemes I’ve read about assume that we don’t have jobs because of a lack of something that can be fairly easily remedied. A lack of knowledge about how to carry out job searches or put together a CV. Lack of resources, such as an interview suit or travel costs. Or a “poverty of aspiration”, an odious assumption that we end up lying around in bed all afternoon or spending our time at a day centre because we just haven’t any goddamn grit and ambition and need to be sent to work in Poundland to develop these traits.

Except of course I know how to write a CV. I have interview suits (although thanks to antipsychotics I may not be able to squeeze into them now). I have all sorts of qualifications, so yeah, I actually have the ambition thing down, thanks. I job search endlessly, even when in crisis, tormenting myself by looking at posts I’d be perfect for – if only…

Here is a list of things that I still, almost four years since I first went off sick, cannot do:

  • Predict what my mood state might be next week
  • Cope on fewer that ten hours’ sleep a night
  • Get up before 9am without adjusting the timing of my antipsychotics so that I have to go to bed as soon as I’ve eaten (and before the optimal time for taking my lithium)
  • Guarantee to show up at a desk somewhere on regular days at regular times, even on a part time basis
  • Guarantee not to cry all day
  • Focus if I have brain fog or hypomanic distractibility
  • Work more than two full days in a row without showing signs of becoming unwell
  • Commute into central London where all the good jobs are.

I cannot make or will myself to get past these issues and force myself to be “work ready”. Disabled people’s organisations have long made the point that many workplaces do not or cannot make themselves sufficiently enabling, supportive and flexible to support disabled workers. And although I can sometimes work, and often want to, realistically I cannot see any organisation managing me around my bipolar. I do not think it possible that I will ever again have a desk to call my own.

Which is why over the past couple of years I have been self-employed. Being my own boss means that I can decide exactly what I am and am not capable of doing. It means that if I put in two hard days of training, I can block out the rest of the week to recover. It means I can balance work outside the home – like training, public speaking, meetings, field research – with things I can do from my sofa, such as writing articles or reports or reviewing documents. And because everything I do is for a mental health or disability organisation, when I’m really not well enough to complete something or attend something, the various people I work for understand. That doesn’t stop me from feeling terrible when I have to hand work back, even when I’m in crisis.

The downside to my current job is pretty huge: I don’t make enough money to live on, but I make way too much to be within the DWP’s “permitted earnings”. People see me tweeting or blogging or on television and often assume I must be making money from those things. I read somewhere that only 2% of people make money from their blog, usually through advertising, and I can assure you I am firmly in the 98%. Nor do I get paid to speak on the television or the radio, or to blog for a mental health charity. These are all things that fall into the category, “Stuff I do for free in the hope it eventually leads to paid work” and indeed much more paid work is coming in than last year. There is no way, however, that I will hit the tax threshold. I won’t even get close.

This means that without a partner who can pay the majority of the bills, I couldn’t afford to keep doing what I am doing. Even with tax credits it wouldn’t be manageable. I would have to give up doing work that I believe makes a difference, stuff like researching into people’s experiences of mental health services, or training people in Mental Health First Aid, or providing a service user voice at professionals’ conferences. I’d be back to a place where my bipolar would be a hindrance, not an advantage. I simply wouldn’t be able to wait and see if my business could grow to a point where I might be self-supporting ad become a taxpayer again. I would have to stop it all and decide whether to claim ESA this time or whether to go onto Jobseekers Allowance. And then I would have wait for the day when I was summoned on a course to teach me how to get a job, which would most likely be so unhelpful it would make my mental health worse (costing the state more in healthcare).

I know exactly who has poverty of aspiration for mental health service users, and for disabled people in general. And it’s not me.

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
This entry was posted in Activism, Bipolar, Employment and benefits and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to No desk to call my own: who exactly has “poverty of aspiration” round here?

  1. Another brilliantly written piece which conveys its message clearly and concisely.

  2. I agree, brilliantly written.

  3. luvintheprof says:

    Can only echo what the other Folks have said, Charlotte. Another excellent post. You sure do have a way with words and I so look forward to reading your book at some point in the future. I know things are still really tough for you but it’s been really good to hear that since the lamotrigine has been introduced, things have taken off in a little bit of a different direction. I really do hope that they continue in this way. You SO deserve stability.

    Sending love and hugs from “Bonnie Scotland”.

    • Thanks so much, Brenda! I am…hmmm, tentatively hopeful maybe? It can’t just be coincidence that I’ve started to feel so much better. What I really dread is if I get The Rash that lamotrigine can cause, I would really like to carry on building the dose and see where it takes me xxx

      • luvintheprof says:

        Yeah, tentative hopeful, sounds good to me, for just now anyway! I learnt of “The Rash” from someone else’s Twitter recently. I REALLY hope that it doesn’t show itself to you. I’ll continue to follow you with interest. Have a lovely Saturday. xXBrendaXx

        P.S. Your tree is lovely. I’m very envious of you being able to make your own decorations!!!

      • *whispers* I only made 4!

      • luvintheprof says:

        *whispers* That’s 4 more than I did and I’m still very envious!!! xXx

  4. Katie says:

    Thank you so much. I have only worked 6 weeks in the past 18 months and really identify with your list of what stops you returning to a formal work setting.

  5. David says:

    “poverty of aspiration” – i’ve never heard of this before. What a thoroughly disgusting phrase, which you rip to shreds perfectly and deservedly!!!

  6. Fran says:

    Your words made me cry. Crying made me understand your words.
    I have lost my job, surprise who they were! DWP, they said they could no longer support me in the work place.
    If they can’t support their employees how are they meant to support the customers who have mental health illnesses.
    I now feel redundant and I’m at home all day trying to cope with changes to my medication, and recover from an operation (due to stab wound not closing and was severely infected inside and out) this was a suicide attempt.
    Christmas season is going to be hard, sacrifices made. I have no idea if I will come out from the other end.
    My family and friends keep at me to reduce
    my medication so they can have the “real”me back. Who is the real me now? I can never go back to that dark place where it took me hours to put on my mask and face the day.
    I am who I am, mum, wife, sister, friend who has a mental illness.

    • Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear this! I would never advise anyone to reduce their meds without support from their doctor, especially around Christmas time. Maybe they are struggling to accept this is who you are at the moment. It may not be forever but I think we do what we have to do and hope others will respect that. I’m sure they don’t want you to go back into “that dark place” again but they may not understand your (very justified!) fears that this what could happen if you change your meds. I know we don’t know each other but I am just sending you supportive thoughts to help you do what you believe to be right FOR YOU. C x

  7. I count my blessings every day. Great piece and well written. Keep up the great work.

  8. Sarie says:

    I have also had the joy of dealing with the DWP this year after being hit by the worse episode of depression I’ve ever had. They seem to think that they can help me to cope with a job I did perfectly well for nearly 10 years before this by outlining organisational and time-management strategies. I am perfectly capable of organising my work and managing my time, what I am currently unable to do is concentrate on the technical information my job requires me to understand or cope with a high-stress deadline-orientated job when I am permanently exhausted. Whenever I attempted to point this out my contact got cross with me and seemed to think I was just being difficult, so the process just increased my stress levels. I stopped taking their calls.

    It might help if the DWP employed people who had a clue what they were dealing with where mental health is concerned, one report I received contained moronic phrases such as ‘xxxx struggles to get her head around her depression’ (what I’d said was that I didn’t know what causes the episodes, there isn’t a particular trigger). But perhaps rather than throwing money at the DWP, the Government could put more into the NHS mental health budget so that outpatients have more options on a bad day than ‘call the Samaritans or go to A&E if you feel suicidal’.

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