In 1997 Claudette Lawrence was having a whale of a time. She had recently got married and loved her job working as a PA for London Underground. There was plenty of variety, including being seconded to work as a manager and even a spell driving the tube trains. At 24, she had everything to live for.
It all changed when a physical illness led to her being medically retired by her employer. “It was the start of a downward spiral.” She says. “It put stress on my marriage which was made worse by worrying about how we could pay the mortgage.”
In 1999, several operations and a miscarriage later, Claudette enrolled as a law student, but within two years suffered her first serious bout of depression. “I don’t know what triggered it” she says. “It could have been debt, or just an accumulation of all the things that had gone wrong. I had always suffered from anxiety, but this was when I first became an Oxleas patient.” Two years of illness followed. “It was an absolute nightmare. I went right through the system. It seemed to take for ever, but eventually I found the right medication and was able to start some volunteering work.”
By 2006 Claudette was doing well and landed a job as manager in a women’s refuge. Within six months, however, she was being bullied and this led to a breakdown in her mental health. After four weeks off sick she received a letter dismissing her. “I was very ill at the time but I knew they were wrong and were treating me unfairly.” Displaying the resourcefulness that has carried her through many crises, she spoke to the legal department of her house insurers and was put in touch with a solicitor who took her case. “I don’t think they expected me to fight back but in the event they settled out of court. I took that as an admission of guilt.” Though she felt vindicated, Claudette says that this experience has caused lasting damage to her self confidence.
While in recovery at the Heights in Charlton, Claudette happened to see a Time to Change poster in the waiting room and decided to find out more. Inspired by the campaign to challenge stigma and discrimination, Claudette set about distributing posters and campaign materials in GP surgeries and Oxleas sites. She also went to see her local MP John Austin. “I told him all about Time to Change and talked about the stigma caused by job applications asking questions about mental health problems.”
Claudette became more involved in the campaign and was often to be found talking about mental health at Time to Change events. However, as if not content with this, she decided it was time to go one step further. She wrote to Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister. “I felt that the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental illness were so bad that I requested a meeting with him. I kept ringing Downing Street to chase it up and then one day a letter arrived from the Prime Minister. He said he supported Time to Change and invited me to meet Greg Beales, his special advisor on health policy. I was absolutely gobsmacked. I thought this can’t be real – me going for a cup of tea at number ten!”
One of the issues Claudette raised with Greg was the disclosure of mental health problems on job applications. “I told him this was discrimination and should be abolished. So you can imagine how excited I was to get an email from Rethink on 18 January saying that the Government has introduced an amendment to the Equality Bill. This will stop employers from asking job candidates about their health (physical or mental) until after a job offer has been made.”
As if not content with this triumph, Claudette has recently launched another anti-stigma campaign – to give people with mental health problems the right to serve on juries in courts of law. Claudette says that “People are being told they are not of sound mind and so are not fit to serve. I think that should be their choice. I have called the office of Jack Straw (the Home Secretary) and asked to meet him and am going to back this up with a formal request in writing.”
While she waits for Jack Straw to get back to her, Claudette has plenty to keep her busy. She is an official Time to Change Champion, representing the charity at a wide range of events. She is also an independent custody visitor, visiting people detained in Police cells to ensure they are ok and have access to a solicitor. As a volunteer for the charity Victims Support, she supports witnesses by accompanying them into court. She also belongs to the Women’s Institute and the Town Women’s Guild.
But for all her achievements, the goal that still eludes Claudette is to get back into work, and she feels that her experiences in her last job have damaged her confidence. “I’ve got this feeling that no one will give me a chance. But I think I have lots to offer. This week I gave a talk to over 100 people but I still wonder if I am I going to be stuck on benefits for the rest of my life.”
Claudette would ideally like to work in mental health, perhaps as an ambassador for people with mental illness. With all her experience as a volunteer it would seem the perfect fit, and if determination counts for anything, there is a good chance she will achieve her ambition. We wish her luck.
Time to Change is a national campaign to raise the profile of mental health issues and challenge stigma and discrimination. See the Time to Change website.