A coroner has written to Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride warning that the operation of the benefits system can worsen the symptoms of mental illness, after a man took his own life amid fears over his universal credit claim.
Kirsty Gomersal, Cumbria area coroner, issued a prevention of future deaths report to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) following an inquest into the death of the man, who had been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.
The coroner stressed he was not establishing a causal link between the man’s suicide in March and his anxiety over his universal credit application. The causes of suicide are complex and there is rarely a single event or factor behind them.
The DWP was not called to give evidence at the inquiry because the concerns did not come to light until the hearing. But the inquest found that a “constant feature” of the man’s anxiety was his application for universal credit, and that this was at the forefront of his mind in the days before his death.
Two days earlier, he had been seen by a psychiatrist from Cumbria, the Northumberland Tyne & Wear NHS mental health trust, who “considered that (his) anxiety had been exacerbated by his application for universal credit”.
The psychiatrist called the benefits office for help during the appointment, but the call went unanswered. The victim was expecting a call from a DWP representative the following day.
That day, the day before her death, she spoke to the registered mental health nurse on duty. The coroner’s report said: “He remained very anxious and his main concern was applying for universal credit.”
The psychiatrist expressed concern to the inquiry about the experiences mental health service users had with the DWP. Evidence was also given by the group nursing director of the NHS Mental Health Trust, who said the problems identified by the psychiatrist were national and, in Gomersal’s words, “were debilitating for service users”.
The mental health trust’s crisis team set up a food bank three years ago to support service users, and the DWP has been invited to attend meetings of the Cumbria Suicide Prevention Group – one of its officers in Cumbria attended several meetings.
Gomersal’s letter raised three “reasons for concern”, saying there was a risk of deaths in the future unless action was taken. “The DWP’s current procedures may not be practical for those suffering from mental health illnesses and may exacerbate symptoms,” he wrote. “I have heard evidence that… the number and extent of DWP forms that need to be completed can be overwhelming for someone with a mental health illness.”
He also raised concerns about long phone queues to speak to a DWP adviser, adding that “having to travel long distances for appointments can be detrimental to those suffering from a mental illness”.
The coroner’s report comes as the government prepares measures to tighten rules around benefit claims, including making it harder to qualify for disability benefits. Last week, Disability News Service reported that a 2019 internal government report, released after a two-year freedom of information battle, concluded that the design of universal credit “is inadequate for vulnerable groups”.
Earlier this year, a survey by mental health charity Mind found that two thirds of people with experience of mental health problems said going through the evaluation of its benefits his mental health worsened.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our deepest condolences go out to the victim’s family. “We will review the coroner’s report and respond in due course.”
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