Study: Nearly 600 suicides linked to UK work assessment programs

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Findings from a new study, published November 16 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggests that a UK program that forces people receiving disability benefits to undergo reassessments is linked to an uptick in suicides.

Since 2008, more than one million recipients of Employment and Support Allowance, the country’s primary disability benefits program for people no longer able to work, have had their eligibility reassessed using a new functional checklist, known as the Work Capability Assessment. The program, launched that year under the Labor Party, was expanded by David Cameron’s Conservative Party in 2010.

The study, led by a team of researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Liverpool, compared data of recipients from between 2010 to 2013 from across the country’s 149 local authorities, finding a relation between areas with the greatest use of the assessments, and a sharp increase in reported suicides, mental health issues and antidepressant prescribing.

Under the study’s methodology, the researchers found that for each additional 10,000 people assessed, there were six additional suicides, 2,700 case of mental health problems and an additional 7,020 antidepressants prescribed. By this calculation, the tests have resulted in an estimated 590 increased suicides.

“Our study provides evidence that the policy in England of reassessing the eligibility of [disability] benefit recipients using the WCA (Work Capability Assessment) may have unintended but serious consequences for population mental health, and there is a danger that these adverse effects outweigh any benefits that may or may not arise from moving people off disability benefits,” the report states, according to the Huffington Post.

“Although the explicit aim of welfare reform in the UK is to reduce ‘dependency,’ it is likely that targeting the people living in the most vulnerable conditions with policies that are harmful to health, will further marginalise already excluded groups, reducing, rather than increasing, their independence.”

The Department of Work and Pensions, which operates the program, strongly criticized the report.

“This report is wholly misleading, and the authors themselves caution that no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect,” a DWP spokesman told the BBC. “In addition, 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.”

But for many disability advocates, the study reaffirms what they have been saying for years.

An assessment is made as a snap judgement by someone who does not know the claimant’s history, with little knowledge of the fluctuating nature of many mental illnesses,” Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, told the Huffington Post. “Nor do they realise how long-term and debilitating some conditions can be.

“The pressure imposed by being told you are ‘fit for work’ and no longer eligible for benefits can reinforce feelings of despair, in some cases leading to people taking their own lives.”