Exclusive: universal credit linked to suicide risk, says study

Research for Gateshead council finds system increases depression and anxiety

Universal credit has become a serious threat to public health, doctors have said, after a study revealed that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected claimants’ mental health that some considered suicide.

Public health researchers found overwhelmingly negative experiences among vulnerable claimants, including high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems and social isolation exacerbated by hunger and destitution.

“Universal credit is not only failing to achieve its stated aim of moving people into employment, it is punishing people to such an extent that the mental health and wellbeing of claimants, their families and of [support] staff is being undermined,” the report states.

It concludes that universal credit is actively creating poverty and destitution, and says it is not fit for purpose for many people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions. It calls for a radical overhaul of the system before the next phase of its rollout next year.

Alice Wiseman, the director of public health at Gateshead council, which commissioned the study, said: “I consider universal credit, in the context of wider austerity, as a threat to the public’s health.” She said many of her public health colleagues around the country shared her concerns.

Universal credit was “seriously undermining” efforts to prevent ill-health in one of the UK’s most deprived areas, Wiseman said. “This is not political, this is about the lives of vulnerable people in Gateshead. They are a group that should be protected but they haven’t been.”

The qualitative study of 33 claimants and 37 welfare advice staff was carried out by Teesside and Newcastle university academics between April and October. It focused on claimants with disabilities, mental illness and long-term health conditions, as well as homeless people, forces veterans and care leavers.

The Gateshead study comes as the UN’s investigator on poverty, Philip Alston, prepares to publish a report of the impact of austerity in the UK. Alston has been collecting evidence on the effects of council spending cuts, welfare reform and universal credit during a two-week tour of some of the country’s poorest areas.

Last month the government declared that universal credit, its ambitious and troubled benefits overhaul, which rolls six benefits into one monthly payment, was “here to stay” after it injected £2.7bn into the system in October’s budget in an attempt to head off a rising tide of concerns, including from Tory backbenchers.

However, the Gateshead study is likely to fuel fresh calls for the system’s rollout to be paused to attempt to fix fundamental design flaws and ensure adequate protections are in place for vulnerable claimants. Around 750,000 chronically ill and disabled claimants are expected to transfer on to universal credit from 2019.

The study found six of the claimant participants reported that universal credit had made them so depressed that they considered taking their own lives. The lead researcher, Mandy Cheetham, said the participant interviews were so distressing she undertook a suicide prevention course midway through the study.

One respondent told researchers: “When you feel like ‘I can’t feed myself, I can’t pay my electric bill, I can’t pay my rent,’ well, all you can feel is the world collapsing around you. It does a lot of damage, physically and mentally … there were points where I did think about ending my life.”

An armed forces veteran said helplessness and despair over universal credit had triggered insomnia and depression, for which he was taking medication. “Universal credit was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It really did sort of drag me to a low position where I don’t want to be sort of thrown into again.”

Compared to the legacy benefit system, participants found universal credit more remote, inflexible, demeaning and intrusive. It was less sensitive to claimants’ health and personal circumstances, researchers said. This heightened claimant anxiety, sense of shame and guilt, and feelings of loss of dignity and control.

Guy Pilkington, a Newcastle GP, told the Guardian the benefits system had always been tough, but under universal credit claimants faced a higher risk of destitution. “For me the biggest [change] is the ease with which claimants can fall into a Victorian-style system that allows you starve. That’s really shocking, and that’s new,” he said.

Participants described the universal credit system as labyrinthine, dysfunctional and prone to administrative error. They experienced the system as “hostile, punitive and difficult to navigate,” and struggled to cope with payment delays that left them in debt, too poor to eat regularly, and reliant on food banks.

Although new claimants are supposed to wait five weeks for a first benefit payment, the average wait for participants on the study was seven and a half weeks, with some waiting as long as three months. Researchers were told of claimants who were so broke they turned to begging or shoplifting.

Wiseman said that alongside the human costs, universal credit was placing extra burdens on NHS and social care, as well as welfare charities such as food banks. It also affected the wellbeing of advice staff, who reported high stress levels and burnout from dealing with the fallout on claimants.

Gateshead council’s deputy leader, Catherine Donovan, said: “Universal credit is not working. It is assumed that it would help people into work and that people would be better off. It’s not the case. It’s pushing people into poverty and hardship. It’s a broken system”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said: “This survey of 33 claimants doesn’t match the broader experience of more than 9,000 people receiving universal credit in Gateshead, who are taking advantage of its flexibility and personalised support to find work.

“We have just announced a £4.5bn package of support so people can earn £1,000 more before their credit payment begins to be reduced, and we are providing an additional two weeks’ payments for people being moved from the old system.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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