Our social affairs editor looks at the issues affecting modern Britain in an era of spending cuts and high unemployment.
It has long been the view of many claimants, campaigners and charities that the government’s “fit for work” tests can have a serious impact on people’s mental health.
Now today some extraordinary figures from academics at the University of Liverpool who’ve looked at whether areas with the greatest use of Work Capability Assessments have higher rates of mental health problems – including suicides.
And the researchers suggest that almost 600 suicides may be linked with the government’s controversial tests.
The researchers point also to 279,000 extra cases of mental health problems and three quarters of a million more prescriptions for anti-depressants.
It is controversial stuff and has received a predictably terse response from the Department for Work and Pensions which describes it as “wholly misleading. The authors themselves caution that no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.”
Now the latter point is quite true – the authors do caution about drawing conclusions between cause and effect but let’s look at what conclusions they are drawing.
The study – published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health – set out to examine if there was any link between the use of the WCA and any rise in mental health issues including suicides.
Between 2010 and 2013 more than a million people claiming disability benefit were reassessed using the WCA and the academics say their study showed “that in those areas with higher rates of reassessment there was a corresponding increase in suicides, mental health issues and anti-depressant prescribing.”
They say that after taking into account the impact of baseline deprivation, economic trends and long terms trends in mental health there were six extra suicides, 2,700 more cases of mental ill health and an extra 7,020 prescriptions for individual anti-depressants – for every 10,000 people reassessed during this period.
Now it is important to remember this is not a study of people who’ve been through the WCA and what happened to them subsequently – it is looking at area trends.
However the report’s authors add that the increases in mental health in certain areas followed rather than preceded the WCA process. They concluded: “Our study provides evidence that the policy in England of reassessing the eligibility of (disability) benefit recipients using the WCA may have unintended but serious consequences for population mental health”
And that’s a view backed by the mental health charity Mind which has long campaigned for the government to fundamentally rethink these fit to work tests.
Mind’s policy and campaigns manager, Tom Pollard, said: “This research provides further evidence that this process can be seriously harmful, yet thousands of unwell individuals still have to endure it every week.”
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said today “it is concerning that they provide no evidence that the people with mental health problems highlighted in the report even underwent a Work Capability Assessment.”
And that’s a good point because that’s exactly what the campaigners and claimants would like – some sort of forensic analysis of people who’ve been through the WCA and what has happened to them and their health afterwards. Whether today’s research makes that more likely is an interesting question.
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