Alice Kirby tells Ruth Hunt how DWP benefit assessment practices contribute to the deterioration of claimants’ mental health, causing an increase in suicidal feelings

Of late, there have been great strides made regarding the understanding of mental illness and suicide, attempted suicide and suicidal feelings. Unfortunately, this hasn’t reached the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), despite its “disability-confident” slogans.

You would think it would want to avoid any more bad press but this dysfunctional and dangerous department can’t seem to help it, especially with regard to the now-notorious Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment.

Recent research conducted by Jemina Napier from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University has found that the ESA assessment process “caused a deterioration in people’s mental health, which individuals did not recover from. In the worst case, the WCA experience led to thoughts of suicide.”

Debbie Abrahams, shadow secretary for Work and Pensions, said this proved the system is “not only unfit for purpose but is causing harm to some disabled people.”

The despair and suicidal feelings some people experience are hardly surprising as they live for months with the threat of financial insecurity hanging over them. Once on such benefit, they still face arbitrary and bewildering decisions to sanction them by removing their benefit for a period of time.

A freedom of information request in 2013 showed that six out of 10 sanctions were given to those with a mental health condition and/or a learning disability — so when Tories talk about the “safety net’ for the vulnerable, those affected know it’s so threadbare many fall through.

Suicide and suicidal feelings are complex — often there is more than a single reason why someone takes their own life. Research has pointed to various indicators that would alert a nurse or doctor. Financial insecurity or the threat of financial insecurity — the brown envelope on the doormat — and previous suicide attempts should be an automatic red flag.

Thankfully, most organisations and mental health professionals have moved on from the days where suicidal feelings or attempted suicide were seen as just “attention seeking.”

However, the DWP is one of those organisations still stuck in the past. Its WCA and PIP assessments are based on an outdated medical model of disability, with little interest being shown in what actually disables someone.

It takes a lot of courage for someone to reply to questions about suicidal feelings and/or suicide attempts especially in the high-pressured environment of a benefits assessment, but we have to ask why these questions are asked at all.

Source: Pushed to the Brink – Black Triangle Campaign

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