Social Justice

'The DWP disability benefits system has crushed me': a domestic abuse survivor speaks out

A survivor of decades of abuse describes the trauma of applying for disability benefits PIP, ESA and DLA

Anonymous domestic abuse survivor struggles with disability benefits system

The woman was so distressed in one disability benefits assessment she curled into a ball and kept asking to go home. Image: Unsplash

The Big Issue is shining a light on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) disability benefits system. A survivor of physical and emotional abuse describes the trauma of applying for employment and support allowance (ESA), disability living allowance (DLA) and personal independence payment (PIP). This is her story.  

The home I grew up in was abusive and dysfunctional. I survived my childhood, but I was battered and bruised with some corners knocked off. Then I met a man when I was 22 and, while he was never physically abusive, he was emotionally and financially abusive and we were together for 24 years. 

I have mental health issues. I don’t think anyone wouldn’t have mental health issues after surviving abuse. I have PTSD, clinical depression and dissociative identity disorder – I switch personalities when I’m stressed and anxious. I can’t control it. I have fibromyalgia which causes pain all over my body. 

A lot of people don’t understand my disorders and don’t accept me, and there’s an element that lots of people just don’t care. I think people think we’re scroungers for claiming benefits. That attitude seems to stick. People see us as a leech and a problem and a nuisance and that you’re just taking money from the state. When you get that attitude, it crushes you. 

Things were coming to a head with my ex in 2012 and my mental health took a nosedive. I was working for my local authority at the time and was encouraged to take voluntary redundancy because I wasn’t mentally capable of continuing: 12 April 2012 was my last day of employment and the day I left him.

I was supported by a mental health worker, social worker and a domestic abuse officer at the local police. They helped me get a flat and apply for ESA and DLA. The assessment process was traumatic.

My support worker came with me to my ESA assessment, which was fortunate because the assessor started asking me questions about my mental health and what caused it. I was sexually abused and having to explain some of the details around that was just too much.

I have blocked out much of that assessment. I don’t remember it, but my support worker said I switched to my childlike alter ego and was curled up in a ball on a chair. I just kept saying I wanted to go home. 

My support worker made a complaint to the DWP saying the assessor had pushed too hard and they didn’t need that level of detail. I got a letter saying they were very sorry and I would never have to have a face-to-face assessment again, and I haven’t since. My DLA assessment was a much smoother experience, but problems started when I had to switch to PIP. 

Every time it has come up for renewal my PIP has been refused. I photocopy all my documents from mental health professionals and all the evidence I have. It can take me six or seven days, spending an hour or two each day, to fill out the forms. I keep disassociating and can forget where I’ve got to. I have to hold myself together as much as I can.

I struggle with phone calls unless I’m really prepared for them. All the conditions that I deal with are triggered by stress. When I was talking to one PIP assessor, he told me that I don’t need to give all the information because they already had it all on file. And then I got the letter back saying I wasn’t going to get my usual award because I hadn’t given all the information about my condition. 



I’ve appealed through the ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process every time and won, but it has always been difficult. I once tried to do it over the phone, but my dissociative identity disorder meant I couldn’t control who was in charge of my body. I was just so distressed. 

I couldn’t speak so the DWP worker ended the call and I ended up having to call back three or four days later. And the same thing happened again. I was in such a state I couldn’t make sense. That’s when they told me to send it all in writing, but it took three weeks more than it should have done. 

And all that time, I was worrying about going to court and appealing. If you go to tribunal, it’s in court and you have to be there. The only time I’ve been to court was when my father was convicted. The thought of having to stand up and speak when I’m frightened and stressed put me in a spiral. I was a wreck. 

I’ve always been lucky with mandatory reconsideration and have never had to go to tribunal, but the worry has set my health back. I have to tell them every time I have a new diagnosis. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and that was another thing to go through. I’ve had surgery and I’m cancer clear now, but it was something else.

I don’t want to rely on the state. But I’m not able to work. I’m not allowed to work. I wish people with long-term conditions weren’t reassessed by the DWP each time. If they get an award, it’s because they need it. You should never have to live in fear that your only means of survival and your only means of living is going to be taken away. 

Get help if you are struggling. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping if you are struggling with your mental health.

Contact the National Abuse Helpline on 08082000247. You can also contact local domestic abuse services and find more resources on the government’s website. Get more help with charities like Refuge and others helping survivors of domestic abuse.

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Response from the DWP

A spokesperson for the DWP said: “We apologise to the claimant for any distress caused. Our disability assessors are qualified health professionals who are trained to provide a supportive service. Decisions are made using all the available information and if someone disagrees, they have the right to ask for a review.

“We are improving the overall experience of the benefits system for people with disabilities, as set out in our Health and Disability White Paper.”

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