Attempted suicides among out-of-work disability benefit claimants have more than doubled since the introduction of fit-to-work assessments in 2008, The Independent can reveal.
According to new analysis of NHS data from surveys taken in 2007 and 2014, nearly half of people surveyed on out-of-work disability benefits said in 2014 that they had attempted to take their own lives.
Results from the 2007 survey – taken a year before the controversial work capability assessment (WCA) test began – show 21 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants had attempted suicide, meaning the proportion more than doubled in seven years.
The assessment process was introduced in 2008 when the Labour government began to phase out incapacity benefit (IB) and replace it with employment and support allowance (ESA). It has come under intense criticisms for failing some of the most vulnerable people in society in recent years.
The latest findings have been described by senior politicians and clinical experts as a “damning indictment” of the controversial testing process, with one leading psychologist saying it marks the “greatest jump in suicide rates in any population”.
Data from NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) 2007, which surveyed around 7,000 adults in Britain, shows 21 per cent of IB claimants had tried to take their own lives, compared with 6 per cent of the general adult population.
The same survey seven years later reveals that 43 per cent of ESA claimants – and as high as 47 per cent of female ESA claimants – had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, compared with 7 per cent of the general population.
In response to the figures, Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, told The Independent: “These results are staggering. It is difficult to overemphasise how large a jump in rates of attempted suicide this is. I cannot think of a greater jump in rates in any population.
“If the Government has any real interest in suicide prevention, benefits reform must be the immediate priority. The UN has condoned the government’s treatment of disabled people as contrary to their human rights.
“The shame, guilt, anxiety and paranoia the current system provokes is a national scandal, that should be headline news. Making the workless feel worthless, and under-serving of support, has provoked a mental health emergency.”
Disability groups and charities told The Independent many disabled people are made “incredibly stressed and anxious” – often driven to suicidal thoughts – by the capability tests, adding that poor-quality assessments often lead to incorrect decisions.
One claimant who is currently waiting for the outcome of her most recent assessment told The Independent she was “terrified” of what might happen and said she had “lost count of the amount of times” she had tried to take her own life.
Sarah Louise Thompson, 31, who suffers from Fibromyalgia syndrome as well as depression, said: “I’ve suffered with mental health for many years and have felt it more when I have to go for another assessment every two years.
“I’m currently awaiting to hear back from another form I’ve had to fill out about an update of my health and how it’s still affects me. I’m terrified of what might happen as I know they are taking it away from people.
“Right now my anxiety and depression are really being affected. They make us feel like we are criminals. I have lost counts the amount of times I’ve tried to end my life.”
The surge in suicide attempts lend weight to an academic study earlier this year that warned the fit-to-work tests were causing permanent damage to some claimants’ mental health, which “in the worst cases, led to thoughts of suicide”.
Figures reported by The Independent last year found that more than half of appealed WCA decisions were found to be wrong when taken to tribunal.
Marsha de Cordova MP, shadow minister for disabled people, said the figures were a “truly damning indictment of the Government’s social security policies, and show they are unfit for purpose”.
She continued: “The Government need to wake up and act fast. It is unacceptable that disabled people are made to suffer like this.
“Labour would scrap the WCA, end the punitive sanctions regime and change the culture of the social security system, from one that demonises people not in work to one that is supportive and enabling.”
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, said the figures lay bare the “psychological torture” the assessments inflict on people.
“The tests are ineffective, inhumane and must be scrapped. Our social security system should be an ally, not an enemy of those who need help,” he added.
Rob Holland, parliamentary manager at Mencap, told The Independent: “Many people with a learning disability tell us that the fit-for-work test has left them incredibly stressed and anxious. We also know of many cases where poor-quality assessments have led to incorrect decisions and people not receiving the correct level of financial support.
“These figures certainly warrant further analysis so we can better understand the impact on health and wellbeing of going through the fit-for-work test and whether or not there is a link to suicidal thoughts.”
A spokesperson for Disability Rights UK said the charity regularly heard stories from disabled people about their poor experience of undergoing the assessments, and that it was “of no surprise” some experience heightened mental distress as a result.
“Part of the problem remains that the WCA doesn’t do what it should, which is to find out if people are well enough to work or not. Many people who are wrongly found fit for work get the decision overturned at appeal, in part because the WCA is poorly designed and badly carried out,“ they said.
Linda Burnip, co-founder Disabled People Against Cuts campaign group, said the WCA was “damaging” to disabled people and needed to be scrapped.
“The WCA has a very negative effect on disabled people and their health generally and often makes people much worse than they were to start with. In particular – for everyone, but especially those with a mental health condition – the continual cycle of reassessments is particularly damaging to them,” she said.
“We come across people experiencing problems with these assessments all the time. Each time this happens people are forced to live through months of fear not knowing which group they’ll be placed in or whether they’ll be found fit for work and thrown off ESA when they are still too ill to work.
“It is nothing short of harassment and hounding people into further and deeper despair and depression. The WCA needs to be completely scrapped as it can’t be reformed as previous tinkering with it has shown and is deeply flawed.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said: “Suicide is a very complex issue, so it would be wrong to link it solely to someone’s benefit claim.
“A decision on whether someone is able to work is taken following a thorough independent assessment, and after consideration of all the information provided, including supporting evidence from a GP or medical specialist.
“We continually review the WCA, and have already introduced a number of changes to strengthen the service.”
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