Tuesday, 23 July 2013

An urgent call for action on Atos.


I just thought I'd share the letter I've sent to my MP pleading for answers and action on Atos. Unless you've been living under a rock you'll probably be aware that Atos have been failing disabled people very badly. I've been rather angry since more news emerged this week showing that 40% of Atos assessments are unacceptably poor and I knew I needed to voice my concerns. I know it's probably a futile exercises writing to my MP, but I can't just vent on Twitter. So here's the letter I've just sent off:

I am writing to you to express my concern about Atos. As you are aware, Atos currently have contracts to assess disabled and sick people for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). It has become increasingly clear that Atos (and the work capability assessment) are failing vulnerable people woefully. 

In the midst of the royal baby excitement, important news broke that the DWP has instructed Atos to raise their standards. It emerged that 40% of Atos assessments were 'unacceptably poor. That is no small number, it clearly indicates that the system is broken and in need of urgent remedy. One of the consequences of the failure of Atos is that appeals to overturn atos decisions are costing the taxpayer more and more money - the number of appeals have more than trebled in four years.

 Of course, it's not just the financial cost of poor Atos decisions and subsequent appeals that needs noting. The human cost of Atos incompetency is much greater. If you are one of the unlucky 4 in 10 that experiences a poor atos assessment, you will likely have your entitlement to ESA stopped and told to go get a job and put in a JSA claim. What happens if you're too disabled or ill to seek and hold down a job? It regularly takes months and months of waiting until you get a tribunal date to get your atos decision overturned. In the meantime, the stress and strain of the uncertainty can cause a deterioration in both physical and mental health in people that are already having to cope with illness and disability. It's not just the disabled person this impacts upon, but also carers and families who will have to offer more emotional and practical and financial support to help them through the Atos crisis. The situation is getting increasingly desperate and  more and more horror stories are emerging. We've had whistleblowers speaking out against the callous way they've been told to treat disabled people. We've heard of many people committing suicide in the wake of wrong atos decisions and poor treatment. There's frequent reports of Atos 'doctors' subjecting disabled people to humiliating treatment, such as one doctor telling an incontinent lady to wear a nappy to work. It is a system which is completely devoid of compassion and humanity. It's reported that Atos receive £3billion for their contracts. I believe it's in the interests of the taxpayer for the government to take urgent action against Atos before any more lives are lost or ruined.  

In the wake of the news of unacceptably poor Atos assessments, Mark Hoban announced that new firms would be brought in to conduct assessments from Summer 2014. I would like to know why the government think its fair and acceptable to subject disabled people to poor assessments in the meantime? I would also like to know who in government is being held accountable for the failings of Atos? It is simply not acceptable to place all the blame on Atos. Someone in government has allowed this Atos incompetency to continue, despite repeated warnings and evidence that the Atos situation is not working. I do believe the Conservatives and Lib Dems have missed an open goal here to right the wrong of Labour. It was Labour who created this Atos and WCA, however, your reluctance to take action urgently means a sizable portion of blame lies at your door. 

Thank you for reading I look forward to hearing from you. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

My experiences with CBT.

Today I want to talk about my experiences with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which I was prescribed in order to help with my anxiety and depression. In case you're unaware, I had a nervous breakdown in April 2012, this was a result of ignoring my symptoms of depression and anxiety until I basically snapped. I currently take medication for these illnesses (a mixture of antidepressants and anti-psychotics). My very supportive GP suggested that CBT might be useful for me, particularly with the anxiety. It took me nearly a year to feel mentally strong enough to be able to cope with the demands of CBT. In case you don't know, CBT is a talking therapy that aims to challenge maladaptive thoughts and behaviours which contribute to mental illness. 

My CBT took the form of weekly two hour group therapy sessions, over a course of six weeks. The course was lead by 3 psychologists and there were about twelve participants in the group. It was structured really well, each week focussed on a completely new area such as an overview of mental illnesses,maladaptive thinking, unhelpful behaviours, coping mechanisms, healthy lifestyle and preventing relapse. The structure of the course was good, as it focussed on a completely new area each week it meant that you didn't become overwhelmed by having information overload. Initially, the group format really scared me, I'm a bit socially anxious, so I was incredibly nervous about going there about my mental health. It took a lot of courage, in the end I was grateful for the group format because everyone was so supportive and it made me realise that absolutely anyone can be affected by mental illness. There was a real mix of people: a retired lady, a fellow young disabled lady, an ex-soldier, it really was quite diverse. We were set homework each week which forced us to reflect on the course and to look at mental illness in a problem-focused rather than an emotion-focused way. 

CBT was eye-opening for me. I've had anxiety ever since I can remember and so I thought I knew all there was to know about it. However, CBT really made me understand why my anxiety was so debilitating and hard to deal with. I got an insight into why thoughts and behaviours are the lifeblood of anxiety. We were shown 'thinking traps' (http://youth.anxietybc.com/thinking-traps) and I realised this was the only way I thought! I also realised that avoidance behaviours (which I engage in A LOT) were a sure fire way to exacerbate anxiety. 

A problem I picked up on with CBT, is that it almost seems to good to be true. It breaks down anxious and depressive thoughts and behaviours into such a simple and obvious way that you read it and think that's all anxiety/depression is so it should easily be a cure for these horrendous illnesses. In reality, anxiety/depression is so much more than just a set of thoughts and behaviours and that's why I don't see CBT as some miracle thing. 

Having said that, CBT has definitely helped me in numerous ways. Initially, I thought it was a waste of time as I still felt low and like a worry doll. However, I've noticed real differences in the way I'm thinking and behaving, albeit these are quite subtle, but hey, I'll take any improvement!
 Some examples of improvements include setting myself realistic goals. People with anxiety/depression often set themselves huge unattainable goals,  because they expect incredibly high standards of themselves. One thing I used to do was tell myself I needed to find a full time job right now and if I didn't I was a failure otherwise. Now, I've realised that full time work is never going to be an option for me, my cerebral palsy just makes that impossible. CBT has really helped me manage my expectations, I've come to terms with the fact that F/T is not possible and there's no shame in that. It's helped me realise that maybe volunteer work is a good option to start with, so that I can see what I'm capable of, and to build up my self esteem which is at rock bottom. 

CBT has also helped my positivity, and to lose a bit of the negative focus. Here's an example: in the past two years I've had four surgeries and six lots of botox to help with my cerebral palsy. My last surgery on 29th May has been a brilliant success. I had my tendons released in my hand and muscle removed from my thumb - the result is a beautifully open hand and I'm so so happy. Meanwhile, my leg is just getting worse and worse, and the consultant has told me further muscle lengthening surgery would be a big, big risk. Now, pre CBT I would just have focussed on the negative and get really angry at myself. I used to blame myself for the fact my disability was getting worse, instead I've realised that I have no control over my CP, so there's no point worrying about it. I'm complying to my treatment recommendations so I'm doing all I can, and that's a positive thing. 

I think CBT has helped me accept having anxiety and depression and the fact that recovery is a continual process and that there isn't an end point. I've always had anxiety, I'm convinced it's a part of my personality and therefore I'll always have it. Initially, this may strike you as defeatist and pessimistic, however for me, it's a positive thing. I've wasted endless hours wishing I could be 'normal' wishing that I would just snap out of anxiety and depression. I've resented the fact that I have them. That isn't healthy and probably feeds them. However, I've realised, that by not fighting them, by not trying to 'get better' it means they've lessened their grip on me. I have more control. I ignored the symptoms of depression for a good two years and as a result it made me incredibly ill. I've realised by accepting the fact depression & anxiety are always in the background it's probably a good thing. It means I can be aware of possible triggers and just to take good care of myself basically. I suppose this is all part of the steep learning curve that is mental illness. 

So for me, I'd say that CBT has certainly helped, it hasn't got rid of my mental illnesses but it's definitely given me a different perspective. I've gained a good insight into anxiety and depression, such that I'm able to recognise unhealthy thoughts and behaviours and it's equipped me with strategies to deal with them. I only completed my course six weeks ago, so it's still early days, I won't know if it's had a long term impact yet. I think the real test will be how my mental health will be in the winter, as I'm certain I get a touch of SAD. 

Thanks for reading and feel free to tweet me (@thisisamy_) if you have any questions!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe

Today I'm going to share my chicken noodle miso soup recipe. It's a super easy one, that healthy and tasty as well. 

Ingredients (Serves 4, or two hungry people!)

900ml miso soup mix. (I bought mine from Tesco, I use two sachets)
2 skinless and boneless chicken breasts
100g rice noodles (or egg if you prefer)
1 thumb-size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated. 
1 plump garlic clove, peeled and crushed. 
4 spring onions, peeled and thinly sliced. 
2 tbsp dark soy sauce. 
1/2 can sweetcorn (drained)
4 mushrooms, peeled and thinly sliced. 

1. Make up the miso soup mix and add to a large sauce pan. Add the chicken breasts (whole), garlic and ginger. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the chicken is cooked through. You'll know it's cooked through when the plumpest part of the breast has no pink remaining & juices run clear.This should take around 20-25 minutes.
2. Take the chicken out and put on a chopping board. Add the sweetcorn, mushrooms, spring onions and noodles to the soup. Simmer for around 5 minutes
3. Meanwhile, using a fork, shred the chicken breasts. Return to the soup.
4. Add the dark soy sauce and serve. 

And there you have it, lovely chicken noodle soup, told you it was easy! This is a really good recipe to adapt to your personal taste, you can use prawns, pork, spinach, you can add chillies if you want spice. 

Let me know if you make this!