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Isabel Kilborn comments on the remarks made by the Director of Policy, George Freeman, in regards to benefits only being deserved by ‘really disabled people’.

Theresa May’s Director of Policy, George Freeman, has encountered heavy criticism after an interview on live radio in which he commented on proposed reforms to Personal Independence Payments.

Speaking on BBC 5 Live, Freeman said ‘We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.’ He went on to categorise those who don’t need PIPs as ‘people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.’

When challenged on this, Freeman went on to assert both his and the Prime Minister’s complete understanding of the condition. Following a considerable backlash, he also subsequently released an apology on Twitter, citing his own experiences with anxiety as a child and describing any offence caused as ‘inadvertent.’

Reading the original article about this in The Guardian made me immediately and completely furious. There is so much obviously wrong with what Freeman said that it is difficult to know where to start.

First of all, the fact that he says ‘really disabled people’ immediately disregards those with mental health problems as not befitting the categorisation of ‘disabled’. Disability comes in many forms, and a sad truth of mental illness, just as with other invisible conditions like chronic pain, is that the truth of experiencing it isn’t visible to the naked eye.

Undoubtedly, mental illness is a spectrum, and not everyone with anxiety or any other condition needs money to help them.  However, it is unavoidably dis-abling – any condition that robs you of your ability to live your life to the full qualifies as such.

…understandably, those with no experience of mental illness can find it difficult to understand what the sufferer may be feeling.

It is ridiculous that in 2017 it is still necessary to make the point that problems inside the brain can be just as crippling as problems with other parts of the body.

Sufferers of severe anxiety can struggle to leave their beds, let alone the house, and therefore very much benefit from financial aid to help them live their lives as freely as possible or, for example, help pay for therapy in order to combat their condition.

Unlike trying to help a loved one or friend suffering from a purely physical problem such as a broken arm or arthritis, it can be difficult to empathise with people experiencing mental health problems severe enough to merit financial aid.

It’s relatively easy to imagine a physical pain based on your own experience which has been elevated to the point of being bedridden, but, understandably, those with no experience of mental illness can find it difficult to understand what the sufferer may be feeling.

That’s not important though. What’s important is understanding that what they are experiencing is as real and painful for them as a physical injury or illness would be, just in a different way.

The elementary nature of Freeman’s statement smacks of ignorance, despite his assertion both of his own experiences with anxiety and his awareness of it in his position as Director of Policy.

…it is [difficult] to understand what’s going on in someone’s head who is too anxious and therefore, too ill, to leave the house and needs money to help them live their life as they deserve.

Just as many people with severe or long-term health conditions live at home, doing their best to manage their illnesses by whatever means a medical professional has decided is best, whether that be medication or chemotherapy, those with mental illnesses manage their illnesses as part of their everyday lives.

However, this does not mean that they are in any way less ill or deserving of money – it just means that they are not in a state of crisis which requires emergency care.

I don’t mean to entirely villainise George Freeman. Live radio is not beneficial to being your most natural, articulate self. But the degree of ignorance he – however unwittingly – suggested only contributes to stigma surrounding mental health conditions.

It is far easier to accept that your sunny, high-functioning friend has anxiety, which rarely reveals itself, than it is to understand what’s going on in someone’s head who is too anxious and therefore, too ill, to leave the house and needs money to help them live their life as they deserve.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean you should dismiss the severely mentally ill as being any less disabled by their condition than a physically disabled person.

It means you should do your bit by educating yourself. And if you’re saying things like George Freeman, it means you’re making things worse.


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