A single mum who lives on benefits has hit out at the makers of reality TV shows for portraying people who don't work as lazy scroungers.
In a hard-hitting attack, mum-of-three Rachel Johnston lambastes the likes of popular shows such as Benefits Britain and A Life on the Dole for giving the wrong impression of people who have no choice but to depend on the state to survive.
Rachel, who is mum to Honour (16), Abraham (13) and Elliot (7) and lives in Millisle, says she would love to work but can't find a job which pays well enough to allow her to get back into employment.
The mum, who used to work as a radio presenter, is upset at how people featured in reality TV shows living on benefits come across as lazy and happy to live on handouts.
She said: "These shows are coming out on TV thick and fast and seem specifically designed to paint people on benefits in the worst possible light - tarring us all with the same brush.
"I just feel so strongly about it and I get offended when I watch them. I'm on benefits myself due to circumstances and I know a lot of people in the same boat as me but we don't all drink and smoke and gamble our money and we aren't on benefits because we don't want to work.
"I would love to work but the reality for me is that due to circumstances it is not possible, I just couldn't survive on the low wages that are being offered by the jobs available.
"These programmes show rough, irresponsible people gambling their money, spending it on cigarettes, alcohol and nights on the town and put the bare minimum into the cupboards - this is not typical of everyone and I think it is unfair that we are portrayed like that.
"I'm an ambitious, hard-working person, a good mother and I know many other people like me who are in the same situation and we are all being given a bad reputation by this kind of TV coverage.
"Living on benefits is not what I want for myself. It actually embarrasses me when people ask what I do and I say I am a single mum on benefits but it's not a choice, I found myself in this situation through no fault of my own."
Rachel is currently surviving on around £13,000 a year in benefits plus rent allowance.
She says she is continually looking for a job but all she can get is something which pays the minimum wage which would leave her worse off financially.
Help towards childcare has also gone down, making it harder for single mothers in particular to work.
She has come through a number of traumas in her life but has remained strong and makes the most of her situation.
As a young mum she was devastated when her husband tragically took his own life, leaving her on her own to bring up their two children who were just five and two years old at the time.
After a number of years she met another partner and had her youngest son Elliot, but that relationship broke down and she doesn't receive any support from the child's father.
Just four years ago she was shattered when her daughter Honour was diagnosed with cancer aged just 12.
Honour had a very rare form of germ cell ovarian cancer and missed a year-and-a-half of school as she underwent treatment.
Fortunately she is now well and back to school where she is excelling. Rachel said: "Thankfully Honour is well now and I cared for her throughout her illness and still do care for her because being confined to the house for a year-and-a-half during her treatment left her with a wee social anxiety as she found it very difficult going back into the real world again.
"I was left as a single mum to raise my children on my own. I carry that weight and my children come first and I always do my best for them.
"You have responsibility when you bring children into the world and I feel with both fathers that they bailed out and left me on my own.
"I feel as a single mum I am doing a good job and my kids are well rounded. I am able to buy fresh food and cook fresh meals for them every day and I keep my house clean and tidy and take great pride in it and yet these programmes portray people on benefits as not being able to afford to eat healthy. That's simply not true.
"If I have any money left over at the end of the week I will treat the children or put it away for a rainy day or buy a plant for my garden or a wee ornament for my house."
Rachel has also struggled for a number of years with agoraphobia and anxiety which she has learned to manage but she cannot predict when her fears will overwhelm her and some weeks she finds herself unable to leave the house because of her illness. This too has proved a stumbling block to work
She says she has applied for jobs but the wages are so minimal that financially she wouldn't have been able to make ends meet.
For her own self-esteem and to feel that she is making a contribution to society, she keeps herself busy with charity work in aid of CLIC Sargent who were a huge support to her when Honour was ill. Rachel is a regular fundraiser and supports the charity by helping raise awareness.
She adds: "I didn't grow up wanting to be a single mum on benefits. I had no choice and I'm making the most of it. I give my wee family the best life I can and we live in a nice home and eat good food and I just feel so strongly that the TV is showing us all in a bad light."