Disability cuts: People with mental health problems left behind as benefit changes take effect

Helen Hoddinott

“A couple of weeks ago my diary said that two women helped me get back on a train…. Apparently I was lost, about 18 miles away from home.”

For Shannon O'Neill, leaving the house is an unpredictable and potentially dangerous ordeal. Her multiple mental health conditions mean that she frequently ‘disassociates’, becoming severely confused and disorientated.

“I’ll have little absences, little switches, through to bigger moments where… I completely just shut down and am not able to move,” she told The Independent.

In February, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) adjusted the criteria for disability benefits, in a move critics say is discriminatory against people with mental health conditions, compared to those with physical problems.

Shannon is one of thousands of people who have been affected by the changes.

She was reassessed as part of the nationwide transition from Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independence Payments (PIP) scheme. The assessor deemed Shannon capable of ‘planning and following routes unaided,’ and she was stripped of the mobility component of her benefit.

"My first thought was: They've misunderstood how my condition affects my mobility," said Shannon.

She immediately applied for mandatory re-consideration and began keeping a travel diary, as well as starting the process of putting together a further 12 pieces of evidence she would present for her appeal.

Two tribunals advised the DWP to expand the reach of PIP to cover a broader spectrum of claimants, to become more inclusive of those with psychological problems.

The government blocked the court ruling, denying an estimated 160,000 disabled people access to the full support they need- an effective cut worth £3.7bn.

The decision has been criticised by the government’s own welfare experts, who say the changes should be delayed until they have been properly tested and “clearly understood”.

Shannon's mandatory re-consideration appeal was rejected. Struggling with a 10% decrease in her benefit allocation, she has been forced to confront the reality that she might not be able to cover the costs of transport if she leaves the house and loses her way.

"Now, I don't have emergency taxi money without getting overdrawn," she said. "I have had to start making decisions about what I can and can't go out to do."

Disability charity Scope has called the changes “concerning” and warned it could mean disabled claimants lose their independence.

“Disabled people spend an average of £550 a month on costs related to their impairment or condition,” Scope’s head of policy and public affairs, James Taylor said.

Shannon has decided to take her case to tribunal in a bid to regain the mobility component of her PIP.

If the ruling doesn’t go in her favour, she could be in danger of losing more of her disability benefit.

“For me it’s worth the risk because I can see that there is a greater issue here,” she said.

“I think the more of us that put our case across to try and explain to the government, and explain to the courts that our mental health can affect our mobility, the better.”


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