LATEST ISSUE OF VIEW: ‘System is designed to remove benefits from those who desperately need them’

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Playwright Fionnuala Kennedy

Playwright Fionnuala Kennedy writes how she was left dumbfounded after going with her daughter’s father – a man with severe mental health issues – to a Personal Independence Payment assessment

Last year I attended a PIP assessment with my daughter’s father. He had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder after a breakdown, an illness that combines schizophrenia and bipolar.

It is an ongoing battle that he lives with every day.

When his PIP assessment came up, he was advised not to make eye contact; not to wash for days before going; be smelly, unshaven, unkempt; be an unsightly, wretched Dickensian figure of poverty.

The female assessor comes to meet us and brings us into a tiny office.

As she asks questions, she types responses quickly on a computer. The descriptors set for PIP are ludicrous. They barely consider physical disability let alone mental health issues. It seems you would have to be in a coma to get the maximum points, and even then I suspect they’d find a way to deduct a few points.

Prompted by the seemingly understanding assessor, he agrees with her that I cook meals for him, wrapping food up in a Tupperware box to take home like some angelic 1950s housewife.

The truth is, I beg him to eat. He has no appetite with the medication. He goes days without eating and we argue about it. He was advised to say I have to prompt him to take his medication, as if needing someone to remind you is worst case scenario. He’s on 10 million different tablets, most of which I can’t pronounce. I don’t know when he has to take them. I do know there are days when he can’t get out of bed, where he then misses picking up his prescription. I’ve seen the knock on effect of that on him.

I am dumbfounded during the assessment. He is asked questions about his illness and medications. He’s not a health professional. He has a very particular thought process and his own version of events. It is disturbing to me that his assessment is based on his testimony alone.

Some questions are degrading. Some questions are dangerous – having to recount traumatic life moments, suicide attempts, typed coldly into a computer as if recounting a shopping list.

One of the recommendations from the recent Rader Report is that all questions relating to suicide and self-harm be removed – the report is currently gathering dust on a shelf. The Rader Report also calls for a series of information events, echoing the 2016 Evason report, so that clearly hasn’t worked. And it won’t work.

Because this is not just an ill-thought through system – it’s intentionally designed to remove benefits from those who desperately need them; a system that will be responsible for deaths of people with disabilities.

At the end of the assessment, this man with severe mental health issues receives his physical assessment. “It’s just like ‘Simon Says’, the assessor cheerily informs him. He is asked to bend at the knees, and stand on one leg. I look at this assessor (a paramedic), and wonder, when she looks back on her career as a health professional, will she ever regret the decisions she made?

He failed the assessment.

At his appeal, which caused him major anxiety, he was asked if he had “the forms”. He wasn’t sent “the forms”, and the appeal was postponed. The doctor in the room was the doctor that treated him when he had his breakdown, and they said “he couldn’t be impartial”. A doctor that knows his illness and the effects, you might say would be knowledgeable.

Now he nervously awaits the date for the appeal. He wants to give up. I’ve run out of ways to convince him not to.

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