Today my focus is…

I’ve been thinking about concentrating – or focusing – and how it is such a big part of our lives. And I was thinking about mental health and conditions which harm our ability to focus.

Look at the words on the screen in front of you.  I know you are doing that already; but look at them and without letting your gaze drift away from the screen, be aware of your immediate surroundings: the bits of the world surrounding the screen. Things are blurred.  Right? Unless you shift your focus away from the screen to the bits of a room or a park or a garden just beyond the screen. Then, you can focus on whatever your surroundings are made of – bookshelves, trees, flowers. But the words on the screen then become blurred. That’s the way eyesight works. We decide what to focus on, and we know that means- other things will not be so clear in our field of vision and we will not be able to pay so much attention to them. Generally, we largely focus on one thing at a time.

‘Focus’, in the sense of our eyesight is, of course, different from the use of the same word when we mean concentrating on an idea or an activity. Yet, there are links between the two processes and some similarities. You can decide to concentrate on reading a book, and if you can do that, and your mind is engrossed in the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, then your awareness of a small cat creeping along the top of your sofa may be limited. Until, with a triumphant ‘miaow’, the cat has leapt into your lap, and your book is airborne, and it’s touch and go if a heart attack is on it’s way. Even if you survive that shock, it’s likely that your focus on what you were reading hasn’t survived.

Some people don’t need distractions to give them little control over their everyday ability to concentrate or focus on thoughts or activities. Leaving aside the most extreme cases of disability, where the person may live in an institution of some kind, there are many conditions which impact upon our capacity to focus. A few examples are: autism or Aspergers; ADHD; schizophrenia and a huge variety of other mental illnesses; drug abuse or alcoholism; and physical conditions which cause pain or exhaustion: some heart and lung conditions, and conditions which attack bones, joints, or muscles.  

For people with one or more of these conditions, their ability to focus on tasks from day to day may be greatly hampered by lightning flashes of pain, or dulled thinking from addictive substances, or fogs of confusion or delusion – from mental health conditions.

Despite huge cutbacks, people who are ill or have a disability can apply for benefits. I no longer work directly in that area, so I can no longer spout rules and caselaw the way some people can spout football statistics, but I remember some things. I remember some facts about one of the benefits, which is called PIP: Personal Independence Payment. Part of it is awarded for difficulties you may have focusing on ‘daily living’ – things like preparing and cooking a simple meal, washing and bathing, dressing, reading and understanding, and talking to other people. If you apply for PIP, you will be assessed by someone who is called a ‘Health Professional’, but he or she has nothing to do with healthcare. It may be a former nurse, but there’s no nursing involved in the process. The ‘Health Professional’ will decide how well you can focus on and do an activity by yourself, or if you need help, and they will award points. Or not. Points mean benefits; no points mean no benefits. As a frontline Welfare Rights Officer for a decade, I lost track of the number of very ill people who got zero points from a so-called ‘Health Professional’. Then, we won those cases on appeal.

In the PIP decision making process, the opinions of real health professionals – doctors, practising nurses, psychologists, and consultants of every kind will be listened to by fake ‘Health Professionals’, or not. The final decision rests with admin staff in the Department of Work & Pensions. In the vast majority of cases, the admin staff will rubber stamp the assessments of the ‘Health Professionals’ – not the real ones, the other ones.  

It is a very bizarre and complex process, riddled with inconsistencies and bad decisions. Every day it awards some people the benefits which they need to survive. That is good. Yet, every day, the same system stops the benefits of other people, including huge numbers who have one or more of the serious conditions I listed above or some other condition. Across the country, for the last decade, claimants and their reps have challenged and defeated many thousands of bad decisions, often after months of struggle. People in desperate need may eventually get back the money they were always entitled to. The delay involved, and the torturous process of appealing, take their toll on entirely innocent victims. In fact, the process may reduce a person’s ability to focus, until all they can do is survive from day to day. It makes sick people sicker, and in far, far too many cases, it drives the most vulnerable souls to suicide.

As I was typing this blog, I was emailed by a journalist I have huge respect for. He was asking me for a quote for a horrifying story about benefits he is investigating. I had to explain that – my role in that field has ended professionally, and all I could do was point him towards other possible help. Yet, it reminded me – there is a huge battlefield none of us are far from, and some of us are still taking fire there.

I know I feel very sad at times, and it’s usually about innocent people who are forced to suffer. And I know that can take my writing into dark places. To be honest, I’d rather spend all my time in the sunlight. Focusing on the best life has to offer: Isobel, and a cat, and my family, and reading books. But sometimes, I feel lost or it pours with rain or it’s too cold and it takes a long time to get back home. Yet, even then, I think I am privileged and so too are all of us who can still fight and struggle for a more just world. Sometimes, you feel like you are stumbling around, wondering how to focus on anything in a fierce wind. And then you remember: in this age, a lot of us were born to face storms. And we will get through them, as often as it takes – together.     

Harvey Duke

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