‘Bad nerves’ not a reason to be on benefits, says former minister

“Bad nerves” is not a reason to claim sickness benefits, a Tory former minister has said.

Rachel Maclean said an unknown proportion of those claiming sickness benefits for mental health were citing “bad nerves”, which she described as a “totally meaningless” phrase.

During day two of debate on Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget, which the Conservatives have claimed will incentivise work, Ms Maclean told the Commons: “We do see a category of people in our country who are economically inactive, and this is very sad to me and many of us because these people fundamentally are not free, they’re dependent on the state.

“And my concern is that the number of working age adults who are out of the labour market because of long-term sickness has been rising since 2019, from around two million people in 2019 to about 2.5 million in the summer of 2022 – and I understand that this started before the Covid pandemic.

“The biggest relative jump in economic inactivity due to sickness is in the under 35s whose main complaints are depression, bad nerves or anxiety. Now I’ve got two psychology degrees, I fully understand mental illness and mental ill health.

“I also believe in using words precisely. I’m very alarmed therefore to see the conflation of the terms depression and anxiety together with bad nerves. Bad nerves? Both depression and anxiety are clinically recognised conditions, bad nerves is not.

“Government statistics, following a number of questions that I’ve posed to the department, don’t break down the number of people self-reporting under each condition, and there’s no data or information on how this concept of bad nerves is defined, assessed, treated understood or prevented, as a separate condition from depression or anxiety.

“This is because there can’t be. Having bad nerves is a totally meaningless phrase. Nobody knows what it is so how can people decide if they’re unfit to work if they have it?”

She added: “I just don’t believe, frankly, that bad nerves is a reason to be on sickness benefits.”

Downing Street turmoil
Rachel Maclean (UK Parliament)

She said: “The human condition is a state mostly of pain and fear, if we’re fortunate we’ll experience love and happiness in some small interludes and we must appreciate those. But I want to be very clear, I don’t criticise anyone who’s suffering from any mental health condition, I do not, including bad nerves whatever it is.”

Earlier in her contribution, Ms Maclean said “benefits must only ever be a last resort for those truly unable to work, never a lifestyle choice caused by faulty wiring in our system”.

She added: “Every time we’ve made reforms to welfare the parties opposite have howled and said that we’re cruel and heartless. It’s total fake outrage. The true failure is to let people languish on benefits and not expect any better from them.”

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