Being Without Broadband: A story of mental health in rural Britain
I’m sitting in a Starbucks. I was here yesterday, too. The day before that, I went to Costa. Rather than doing this to feed my usual coffee addiction, I’m doing it to be connected to the outside world. I’d much rather be home.
On 1 January, we had a storm that dislodged something in the wiring for our phone line. That day, just before 3 pm, I called BT to get the issue worked out. The earliest engineer appointment they could offer was Tuesday afternoon. We waited. We went to coffee shops. We felt increasingly cut off, particularly as we live in a rural area with limited mobile coverage. Depending on what room you’re in, or even which part of a room, you can lose signal completely.
Yesterday, during the 1 pm to 6 pm window, at around 4:30 pm, I had a call from Openreach saying that the engineer simply wouldn’t be coming out. No reason given, no apology, no explanation. The earliest appointment they could give me was Thursday afternoon.
I called back later to explain the seriousness of our need for a phone and was told nothing was available. When I tried to ask for a supervisor, my call was disconnected. I called back, only to get a message about long wait times and that my call was in a queue. If I wanted, though, I could use BT’s helpful online self-service portal.
Right now, having a phone line and a broadband connection is a pretty significant need. Much of the work I do as a writer requires me to be online. Having no phone or internet for a week means no income for a week. But it also means much more than that.
For the past few months, I’ve been dealing with a pretty severe depression. I have had appointments every week, sometimes more than once a week, with members of the local mental health team. We’re working on getting me through this, but I’m not there yet. I’m very far from ‘there’.
There’s a lot I could say about why I’ve swung so deeply into depression. Changes in my life, changes in medication, and the holidays are but three of the items on a very long list. Regardless of why I ended up in these doldrums, I’m here now.
It’s not a pretty thing to talk about, but a real problem with depression is the risk of death. I hate writing it, but there’s a very real risk of suicide with this level of depression. There’s the potential that my husband will need to call emergency services because of my illness. Without a phone, that isn’t possible.
Although it wasn’t mentioned as an option in any of my phone calls to BT, even in the one where I explained that I need a phone line because of ill health, they do offer a Priority Fault Repair Scheme. This service offers those with serious health problems the ability to jump the queue of service requests.
The problem with this scheme is that it is limited to those who meet a very specific set of criteria:
You, or someone who lives with you, are registered as Chronically Sick & Disabled by your local authority social services under the Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act (CSDPA) 1970
Incapacitated and therefore housebound, due to a chronic long-term illness or disability which prevents you leaving the house without the assistance of another person. For example, on the National Organ Transplant waiting list.
While this will cover a large number of people, it leaves those of us with severe mental illness in a bit of a grey area. Applying as a disabled person with a local authority is notoriously difficult when doing so for mental health reasons. Even with psychiatric care, the burden of ‘proof’ is difficult. Mental illness is a hidden disease, one that people don’t like to talk about, and one that is largely misunderstood.
The need for an active phone line is also a psychological issue. For me, and many others with mental illness, being online has offered a way to interact with the outside world. It’s a way of being connected to society, even when you aren’t well enough to do basic things like get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and walk outside.
Being online is a way for me to contribute to my family’s upkeep, too. It’s a way I can bring in some pittance of money, giving me a purpose when I’m not well enough to be the primary caregiver for my son. Even if I’m not a very good wife when I’m not well, I can offer something to my husband in this way.
The feeling of isolation that comes with depression is crippling. When you aren’t well, the thoughts of your worthlessness are overwhelming. Being cut off from the rest of the world, however virtual they may be, leaves you with nothing but these intrusive thoughts of worthlessness.
The need for communications — phone and internet — in modern life are essential for most people. The most basic elements of life are only handled through these means. For those with mental illness, the need is even greater, something I’ve felt with some severity this past week.
While my service will — hopefully — be on in a few days, I’m sure there are others who aren’t in a position to argue their side for service repairs. When in the grips of the darkest depression, it is difficult to communicate your needs, and even more difficult to launch into discussions of service repairs with a noisy call centre. I know that, in some of my worst depressions, the cacophony of accented call centre representatives over the crackly mobile line would have set off a bout of paranoia. The murmur of voices was always a problem for me when I dipped into psychotic states, a type of life that was so horribly painful, I often felt the only solution was to end my own life.
I’m not alone in this, either. But there are no options for sufferers of mental illness. We don’t have access to faster service for repairs, or even the understanding of most members of the public. Without a phone or internet, I don’t have access to the emergency services that could save my life, or a way to find out the contact information for local support options.
My problem is something that needs to be addressed. It’s the intersection of rural coverage and mental illness being seen as the serious issue it is. It’s something that is being ignored by BT and others. It’s something that could be a matter of life and death.