Fighting to Protect University Mental Health/Counselling Services

I have an article up at the PhDisabled blog, about the media debate currently going over student mental health services in the UK and how they are overstretched and underfunded.

Disabled PhD students are dealing with a lot at the moment. Apart from the ongoing academic disablism that we always face (see the #academicableism feed for many, many examples), there are specific situations dragging us down during this age of austerity. Student Finance England is finding ways to delay and turn down students’ applications for Disabled Students’ Allowance. (Anecdotal evidence includes my own fight to get it back – evidence of my disability that was always accepted in the past, has this year been refused. Talking to others, it seems that I’m absolutely not the only one.) Tuition fees are rising, which further excludes already-excluded disabled students, since disabled people are among the poorest people in society and are only getting poorer under the current government regime. And now there’s a crisis in the funding of mental health and counselling services based in universities.

The protection of our services at universities is a priority in these days of increasing exclusion – especially mental health/counselling services. Not all students with mental health problems would consider themselves disabled, but many would. As I say in the article, UCAS evidence suggests that increasing numbers of people with long-term mental health problems are applying to university in recent years. Meanwhile, non-disabled and disabled students alike deal with the mental health difficulties that can arise from stress at university. And disabled students face a whole lot of stress.

That’s why I’m arguing here that we need to talk about mental health services at universities and how they are under-funded. Unlike some university representatives, who apparently would rather we didn’t.

Cross-posted to Uncovering the Roof

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That DLA Form

I fell in the kitchen while holding a hot (well, warm) cup of tea yesterday. I broke a plate and have strained some muscles. Nothing serious, but it could have been. My joints dislocate, and I have a lot of trouble getting up from the floor, and I was alone for the next five hours.

I attended an utterly fantastic disability studies conference last week – the Lancaster Disability Studies conference at CEDR. I plan to write about various things that came out of it, soon. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m musing on how I had to bring my partner as a PA, and how they had to take three days off work (out of holiday time, of course – no unpaid leave for carers), because I no longer qualify for direct payments for carer-type support, for financial reasons. I’m assessed as needing 25 hours of care per week, but I can’t actually have that.

I’m about to start my Disability Living Allowance (DLA) renewal form. For anyone who doesn’t live in the UK, and therefore doesn’t know about this, DLA is a benefit to help you with the costs of disability. It’s not tied to whether or not you work, but to how your impairment affects your need for care or mobility support. The DLA form is a huge, distressing form where you have to detail every part of your life in which you need care support and/or have mobility problems. Everything from how you are supported on the toilet, to what kind of help you need getting on and off buses. It’s mind-blowingly invasive. I was in tears just reading the bloody thing when it first arrived. Last time I had a renewal, I wrote 60 pages on this stuff. As I recall, my DLA form ended up longer than the Master’s dissertation I was also writing at the time.

Margaret Shildrick and Janet Price write about the DLA form and the way it embodies power relations within the bodies of disabled people:

The welfare claimant is controlled not by a display of external coercion but by continuous surveillance and by the insistent demand for a personal accounting that fits the rigidly constructed parameters of disability. The subject herself effects a normalising judgment on her own modes of being… [She] constructs her very selfhood in the process of normalisation. (p.436)

They go on to argue that disabled people then engage in self-surveillance through the DLA form, examining their own life and behaviour in damaging ways.

What kind of self-surveillance? Since ‘austerity’, perhaps more kinds than Price and Shildrick could have imagined in 1999. There’s the benefit fraud hotline that encourages a Big Brother-like, spying-on-your-neighbour approach that means that I wouldn’t dare leave the house without a mobility aid on a good day. (I don’t get seen on a bad day, of course, when I am in bed behind curtains where neighbours can’t see me.) The highly misleading headlines that talk about fraud in inaccurate terms, focusing on benefit cheats rather than on their own role in government anti-welfare propaganda. Other propaganda like the TV programme Benefits Street. The government’s own constant talk of ‘cheats’ as a distraction from their dismantling of the welfare state. All of this is going to be running through my head while I fill in the form that will determine my future circumstances in so many ways…. and it makes me very afraid. I’ve even considered not sending in my renewal form, and letting my DLA lapse. I won’t, because that would be really unwise – but the fact that I’m even considering it is quite scary.

So these two situations, the fall yesterday and the partner-supported conference last week, are on my mind. They’re two of the things that I have to include in my detailed self-surveillance through the form itself, my constructing of myself as disabled. I’m fairly certain that, even if I describe all the dangers, complications, pain and general failures associated with my ‘leaky body’ (to steal a phrase from Shildrick), I still won’t make much sense to the government agency responsible for deciding if I’m ‘disabled enough’ to continue to get my current rates of DLA. If they can even begin to get their heads around the fluctations in my extremely weird set of impairments, which don’t fit the way that disability is socially constructed by the state – as Shildrick and Price explain so well.

Which means my life may be about to change even more radically than when I lost the funding for my carers. I could well lose the car that I lease with my mobility component of DLA, as well as everything else that DLA is a ‘gateway’ for: mostly things that cost ‘the taxpayer’ nothing, but which enable me to access this hostile world full of stairs, and crowds, and buildings I can’t get into, and trains that aren’t on the same level as platforms, and enormous car parks that I can’t walk across, and people who are highly stressful, and toilets that don’t accommodate me, and sorry you have to go round to the back entrance, it’s only five minutes’ walk away

And even if my life doesn’t change in these ways, it has done for many, many people. As the government gradually replaces DLA with Personal Independence Payment (PIP), there is talk of huge numbers of of people losing this crucial allowance that gives them access to the world. Right now, the delays in processing PIP forms mean that hundreds of thousands of people are receiving nothing while they experience delays of at least six months and sometimes more, with people turning to food banks and charities because of the extra costs of disability. Even the government has said that’s unacceptable – but right now, that’s where we are. And if/when this situation is resolved? Significant numbers of people are predicted to lose their disability cost-related benefits entirely.

So I’m only one person, and I’m not that important, really. But with cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance on the horizon, and the prospect of losing some or all of my DLA, and having lost my funding for carers, it does feel a bit like the state is out to get me. I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll cope well enough to continue with my PhD. I think SJ and I will probably find ways – we’re awfully resourceful, and SJ is amusingly creative when the excretion hits the air conditioning unit.

But I still don’t want to fill in that DLA form.

I referenced:

Price, J. & Shildrick, M., 1999. Breaking the Boundaries of the Broken Body. In: Price, J. & Shildrick, M. Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 432-444.