Anxiety Is A ‘Real Disability’ No Matter What The Government Says

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The Tory policy chief recently claimed people with anxiety aren’t ‘really disabled’, in the latest demonstration of bigotry towards mental illness.

Disability benefits should only go to ‘really disabled people’ and not those ‘taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety’, according to George Freeman, a senior advisor to Theresa May who leads the Downing Street policy unit.

Freeman’s comments have shocked and outraged observers, and anyone who has ever suffered with an invisible illness, such as anxiety or depression. They mark yet another archaic viewpoint regarding the seriousness of mental health.

Department of Business, Innovation and Skills

Speaking on Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5Live, Freeman (pictured) said:

The truth on the disability budget is that we spend £50bn a year on disability benefits and what we’re trying to do is make sure we’re getting them to the right people who are most in need.

These tweaks are actually to do with rolling back some bizarre decisions through the tribunals that now mean benefits are given to people who take pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.

We want to get the money to the really disabled people who need it.

Try telling that to someone with anxiety. You might struggle, because in some severe cases of anxiety disorders, sufferers can’t leave their homes.

They can’t speak to another person without sparking a debilitating panic attack or stomach-churning nausea or a crippling black cloud descending over the conversation, causing them to make their polite excuses and flee from social interaction.

Had a great filming @negativefb Photo by @gmunchiez

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Speaking to UNILAD, Aria Shahrokhshahi, a 20-year-old freelance photographer from Nottingham who has battled anxiety since childhood, explained that feeling:

When I was young I didn’t know what it was. I was always running into my mum’s bedroom in the middle of the night with this overwhelming feeling that something was wrong, just to check she was okay. I was always scared.

As you get older – and I started to learn things about myself and my mental state – my anxiety started to get a bit more complex. It starts to evoke worry about all kinds of stuff… Stuff that you might know isn’t real. Even existential anxiety, worrying about your life and your future, can be so tough. You can get really caught up in comparing yourself to other people when you have anxiety and that can spiral out of control just like a self-perpetuating cycle of shit.

Although it’s not physical, anxiety can be so damaging – especially when you’re younger – purely for the reason that you can’t see it and put a cast on it like you would a broken leg. When people talk about mental illness, they talk about it like it’s this mythical thing. Yet it’s very real and it affects so, so, so many people. Society needs to stop neglecting invisible illnesses.

Far too addicted to selfies ??

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Echoing his sentiment, 24-year-old Fran Rock from Yorkshire told UNILAD just how physical anxiety can be:

It feels like you have something on your back and you can’t let people know it’s there. You’re constantly scared that everyone will realise there’s something wrong; it’s like having a physical weight on your chest. The stresses of everyday amplify the strain too.

And it’s not ‘normal people’ worry. Everyone has ‘normal’ worries. While someone without anxiety might have money troubles, when someone with anxiety has money troubles, you think you can’t afford food and that you’ll starve. You get physical sweats. And physical shakes. And physical difficulty to breathe.

You have huge personal battles. I’ve had days when you shouldn’t be in work but you have to be in work because of the overwhelming guilt and the fear of letting people down. It means you force yourself into situations you don’t need to be in. Everyday you wake up just wanting to be okay and feel normal but you can’t escape the feeling of worry and fear.

This is the reality Freeman, the MP for Mid-Norfolk, has chosen blithely to ignore, despite the fact that he himself experienced ‘traumatic anxiety as a child’.

Freeman’s public defence of his own bigoted comments – which divulged his own past encounters with anxiety – show exactly how dire society’s treatment of mental health disorders has become.

Even a man who has experienced anxiety doesn’t seem to gauge the importance of supporting people with mental health issues on a parity with those suffering from physical illnesses.

Herein lies the problem for people with so-called invisible illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorder: It is difficult to understand what we can’t see.

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People with anxiety – those ‘people who take pills at home’ whom Freeman speaks of – display no discernible differences from anyone else you may meet.

But if you could see inside their heads, you’d be able to understand the black cloud that can fog the mind and stop a life being lived to its fullest.

Steff Ellis, who has battled anxiety for over a decade, told UNILAD:

 I guess that’s why depression and anxiety is such a grey area – if you can’t see it how do you explain to someone how real it is to you?

Can you phone in sick at work one day if you’re having a particularly bad episode? Of course not, it isn’t socially acceptable – even though it’s very much an illness.

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Steff, 25, from Nottingham, added:

I can appreciate it may seem a little condescending to claim mental illness is the same as the experience of someone who is completely physically handicapped. While the latter is very physical and a little more obvious, the other could be classed as a disability of the mind.

In that respect I think there are varying levels of anxiety – as there are varying levels of physical handicaps. So, for somebody who can’t physically leave the house for fear of a panic attack, anxiety can be just as confining as the physical disability of somebody who can’t leave the house because their body physically won’t allow it.

Anxiety is a very real condition. It’s debilitating and restrictive and can often mean missing out on aspects of life that might seem so simple to somebody else. It can also have very physical repercussions such as nausea, shortness of breath and panic attacks.

Often these symptoms can feel restrictive and can hinder things like job opportunities and interviews and even the job itself if you finally get there. In a way, anxiety disables you to fully reach your maximum potential.

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Try telling her, and the thousands of others like her, that she’s not ‘really disabled’ and deserving of the utmost help our government can provide, Mr. Freeman.

The ‘bizarre decisions’ Freeman spoke of refer to a court ruling in December last year that stated people who find it difficult to leave the house because of anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health problems should be able to receive the higher rate of Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

PIP is gradually replacing Disability Living Allowance and is awarded by the government to cover the extra costs that disabled people face every day.

Sounds great so far? Well, on Thursday the Tory government brought forward legislation that would stop the court’s judgement from coming into effect. These changes would mean that thousands of people who experience psychological distress are only eligible for a lower rate of PIP.

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More specifically, the government’s legislation would serve to reduce the disability benefits promised to 164,000 people by the tribunals, according to the Department of Workplace and Pensions’ estimations.

These are people who can’t leave their homes alone because of the severe psychological stress it causes. Half of them would have received the enhanced rate of £57.45 a week, and the other half the standard rate of £21.80 a week, under the tribunal proposals, according to the DWP.

Another 21,000 people would have moved from the standard to the enhanced rate, giving them an extra £35.65 a week. A further 1,000 people who need help taking a medication and monitoring a health condition will be affected, the Mirror reported.

The mental health charity, Mind has opposed the government legislation, saying:

These proposed changes could prevent people accessing the financial support they need to get to health or job appointments, get out to pay for fuel and heating, take their children to school or see friends and family – things essential to their daily lives and recovery, things essential to preventing isolation.

Freeman appeared on BBC radio to back the emergency laws that will stop Personal Independence Payment (PIP) being expanded for 165,000 people, cutting £3.7bn from the benefits.

The Chief Executive of Mind, Paul Farmer has responded directly to Freeman’s comments, writing:

Mr Freeman’s comments on PIP appear to support the notion that some mental health problems are not seen as severe enough to warrant support through PIP.

We understand that Mr Freeman has his own experiences of anxiety, however it is important to recognise that everyone who has experienced a mental health problem will be affected differently.

Mental health problems vary in severity and can fluctuate over time. For many people they can be completely debilitating, and so severe that they can’t leave the house.

George Freeman has since expressed regret over his comment – coyly avoiding an actual apology – just in case they ‘inadvertently caused offence’.

With all the flippancy of a response on a group iMessage chat, Freeman tweeted:

Disabilities Minister Penny Mordaunt said the proposed PIP reforms are designed to ‘restore the original aim of the benefit’ to make sure the most needy were given support.

Meanwhile, most of us are wondering how suffering from a crippling anxiety which keeps a person housebound and unable to live a fulfilling life – by anyone’s standards – is not classed as an illness deserving of the total support of society and our government.

If any of the issues raised have affected you – or you need help coping with anxiety – you can call Samaritans free any time, from any phone on 116 123.


Francesca Donovan

Francesca Donovan

A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you've never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.