I had been expecting the letter for some time so, every time I heard the thud of the morning mail hitting the floor, my stomach plunged and I felt the first familiar thorn-prickles of panic in my mind. Then, one morning, I saw the dreaded brown envelope and I new it had finally arrived – my peremptory ‘invitation’ from ATOS to attend a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). I now felt overwhelming feelings of dread, anxiety and fear, and found it impossible to envisage anything but a humiliating, degrading, and stressful ordeal.
I have suffered from periods of chronic depression ever since I was a teenager and, at the time, had been suffering from a severe depressive episode which caused me, reluctantly and guiltily, to resign from my last temporary job. I have held down a number of very good jobs in the past and I am determined to return to the job market in the future as I believe I still have something to contribute to society. At that time, however, I was fragile, anxious and, at times, extremely depressed and despairing. My self-confidence was non-existent and, as a result, I had great difficulty in relating to people I didn’t feel safe with. My mental health problems were also exacerbated by severe debt problems.
The day of the interview dawned and I was in a sorry state. The interview took place in an unwelcoming, drab building, the décor a dismal shade of dirty brown; the bored receptionists were closed off behind impersonal glass screens (presumably for their own protection); there was a ambience of defeat and exclusion about the whole place. The atmosphere did nothing to quell my state of nervous tension and exhaustion.
The WCA started with a few cursory questions about my mental health condition – what were the symptoms? was I receiving treatment? (Yes), was I taking any medication?(Yes) – which I expected and were relevant to my particular condition. Thereafter, I became increasingly concerned at the irrelevance and focus of the questions. Some of the questions seemed downright bizarre: do you have any pets? (Does ATOS think that somebody is capable of work if they have a chihuhua at home?); Can you make yourself a hot drink? (“No, being depressed means you are baffled by the technology involved in boiling a kettle”); Have you any hobbies? (“Yes, watching England get abjectly knocked out of the World Cup to the Seychelles on penalties”). When I replied “bird watching” to the latter, he then asked when was the last time I went bird-watching, and whereabouts? I began to expect almost anything for the next question: What’s the capital of Switzerland? Have you ever seen a frog? What’s the best kebab, shish or doner? (Shish, as everybody knows). I almost laughed about the surreality of it afterwards but, at the time, it was enraging and disorientating.
The ATOS representative seemed particularly interested in my journey to the WCA. I live approximately 8 miles from the city where the WCA took place, and I had travelled by train and walked from the train station, stopping in a nearby church for a period of calm and tranquillity. I found the journey stressful and tiring as I am not used to public transport. Yet he was extremely interested in how I had got from the train station; how long it had taken me; and how I was intending to return home (I should have asked him for a lift). The WCA appointment letter makes it quite plain that your benefit will be in danger if you do not attend the WCA; at the same time, the very fact that you do attend the WCA seems to be regarded as proof that you are fit enough to work and therefore not deserving of receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) anyway. It is a deliberate Catch-22 situation. I would obviously have preferred the WCA had taken place far closer to home but was concerned, rightly or wrongly, that if I complained it might affect my claim.
The whole process left me feeling very upset, depressed and, yes, angry. I felt as if all the mental suffering and torment I have experienced in my life had been reduced to a series of fatuous and offensive questions in an impersonal and harsh environment. I have been made to feel that my experience, which includes childhood illness, sexual abuse, and cancer, would not have affected a ‘normal’ person and I am weak, hopeless and ‘unmanly’ for allowing them to affect me in the way they have. I wish with all my heart that I had not undergone such experiences; I also fervently wish, virtually every day, that I had been strong enough to shrug them off and lead a continually economically active life. But, at times, and to my great distress, this is not the case, and I need help, support and treatment before I attempt to rebuild my life once again.
I would think it is virtually impossible for anybody not to be passed fit for work if those are the sort of questions deemed appropriate for making an informed and compassionate decision on each individual case. The ‘tickbox’ nature of the interview also made no allowances for the specific nature of mental illnesses, which are unique to each person, and affect people in a myriad of different ways. To me, it feels that we have reached a stage where illness of any type is regarded as a crime against society. It is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental illness in their lives so some humility is surely needed as nobody, however confident, rich and successful, knows what is around the corner. This nonsensical and offensive system also needs to change before too many people are broken by the active indifference of a bureaucratic and faceless system.