Disability welfare assessments linked to 600 suicides – study

© Desmond Boylan
Tests which assess eligibility for disability benefits may have had an effect on the mental health of claimants, according to new research which links the assessments to 590 suicides and thousands of anti-depressant prescriptions.

The study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggests the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), also known as fit-for-work tests, may have “serious consequences” on the mental health of those being tested.

It adds that the policy, which was intended to move people off disability benefits, had been introduced without any consideration of its effect on individuals.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool found 1 million people had been assessed in England between 2010 and 2013. They found these assessments are linked to 590 extra suicides, 297,000 extra cases of mental health problems and 725,000 anti-depressant prescriptions during the same amount of time.

Each additional 10,000 people reassessed in each area was associated with an additional six suicides, 2,700 cases of reported mental health problems and the prescribing of an additional 7,020 antidepressant items,” the report notes.

The reassessment process was associated with the greatest increases in these adverse mental health outcomes in the most deprived areas of the country, widening health inequalities.

In total the results amount to a 5 percent rise in suicides, 11 percent increase in mental health issues and 0.5 percent more antidepressant prescriptions.

However, the researchers also note that they can only identify correlation between the WCA and the increases in mental health problems. They cannot say absolutely that the WCA is the cause.

The program of reassessing people on disability benefits using the Work Capability Assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing,” the report concludes.

This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits.

Principle author of the report Benjamin Barr criticized the lack of foresight among policy-makers who failed to examine the consequences of the WCA.

“The pattern of increase in mental health problems closely matches the increase in assessment of the Work Capability Assessment,” said Barr

This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefit.

“This benefit assessment program, which you are introducing to a very large number of people, should have the same level of rigor applied [as that of cancer screening in the NHS] to see whether we want it or not. You have to be sure you are not causing harm.”