PIP investigation: ‘Horrific’ suicide question sparks fresh assessment inquiry calls

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There are fresh calls for an inquiry into the way the government assesses eligibility for a key disability benefit, after claimants with mental health conditions described how they had been asked in assessments why they had not taken their own lives.

There was a horrified reaction on social media when disabled activist Alice Kirby revealed on Twitter how the healthcare professional who assessed her eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP) had asked her: “Can you tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet?”

After she shared her experience, many other claimants came forward to say that they had been asked the same, or a similar, question by their assessors.

Kirby, co-founder of the user-led group Disabled Survivors Unite (DSU), told Disability News Service (DNS) that the question was asked by an assessor employed by the government contractor Atos at her PIP assessment in November.

Kirby tweeted: “During my #pip assessment I was asked why I hadn’t killed myself yet. This is standard, assessors regularly ask this question.”

This was retweeted more than 850 times, while she received more than 140 comments, many of them from other PIP claimants with mental health conditions.

Kirby told DNS: “We know cuts to disability benefits cost people their lives, but these assessments themselves also put us at risk.

“The DWP urgently needs to launch an investigation into the assessment process and the effect questions like this have on us.

“People are terrified about being assessed, and many find their assessments so traumatic that it has a detrimental effect on their health.

“This is simply unacceptable; we should not be living in fear.”

Kirby’s concerns are just the latest to be raised about the PIP assessment process, and come as DNS continues its investigation into claims of widespread dishonesty and other poor practice by assessors working for both Atos and fellow contractor Capita on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

DNS has now collected many more than 100 cases of PIP claimants who have raised serious concerns about their assessments, in addition to those collected by Kirby.

The assessor’s question was described by those who read Kirby’s tweet as “horrendous”, “unacceptable”, “horrific” and “absolutely flabbergasting”.

In a follow-up tweet, Kirby said: “Let that sink in – government are hiring companies and telling them to ask disabled people why they haven’t killed themselves.”

She added: “It should be more widely acknowledged how humiliating and uncomfortable #pip and #esa assessments are made for disabled people.”

DNS has seen comments posted on social media – collated by Kirby – by at least 30 other disabled people who say they have been asked similar questions during PIP assessments or work capability assessments.

One of them, who was assessed by Capita, told DNS that she had been discussing her mental health with a PIP assessor last summer, and mentioned that she had been treated in A&E on a number of occasions after wishing to take her own life, when the assessor asked: “Why didn’t you kill yourself?”

Another said they were “aggressively questioned about why I hadn’t killed myself ‘yet’ and what methods I’d use”.

One said: “I also got asked this because I have PTSD and have attempted in the past. They asked why I failed.”

Another said: “I was asked that. True low point.”

One PIP claimant told Kirby on Facebook: “I got asked this, I felt very, very, very degraded. It’s a question that should not be asked.”

Another said he had heard it twice when attending other people’s assessments, and when he objected was threatened with being thrown out of the assessment.

Others said they had been asked, or heard, other disturbing questions and comments about self-harming behaviour during the PIP process.

One said he was told: “You’ve considered suicide? That’s understandable.”

Another Twitter-user told Kirby that a friend had been asked at a tribunal appeal to prove that she had tried to kill herself.

When she showed the panel the healed scars on her arm, she was told: “Long time ago then.”

So far, neither DWP, Atos nor Capita have denied that assessors have asked such questions.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments.

“Both Atos and the DWP take allegations of this kind very seriously and will investigate any complaints made.”

An Atos spokesman said: “We are unaware of a complaint but we will investigate if one is made.

“Our role is to provide a well evidenced report based upon information obtained using the criteria laid out by government.

“The professional and compassionate service we provide to claimants is our primary consideration.”

A Capita spokeswoman said: “Our assessments are carried out in line with guidance from the Department for Work and Pensions.

“Disability assessors are equipped with knowledge, skills and continuous training in order to understand how various mental and physical health challenges impact upon a claimant’s daily function.

“While we cannot comment on specific cases, we expect all assessments to be conducted in a professional and empathetic manner.”

When asked whether such questions were offensive and potentially dangerous, and whether Capita would take action to ensure they were no longer asked in assessments, she refused to comment further.

But Kirby added: “The fact that neither the DWP or Atos have denied that I was asked this, or that it is a question regularly asked, is very telling.”

She said that some people on social media had cast doubt on what she wrote and had demanded proof.

But she said: “Assessments are purposefully made very difficult to record, and in any case we are not allowed to publish recordings.

“This ensures assessors are not held accountable for what they say, while we are seen by some as unreliable sources.

“Until our testimonies are heard and believed, this fight for justice will continue to be a difficult one.”

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  • Stephen Jones

    I was asked when I mentioned I had been thinking of ending it, “So what stopped you”?

  • Chris Spankie

    A Capita spokeswoman said “….we expect all our assessments to be carried out in a professional and empathetic manner”. How many assessors have experience of living with a disability??

    • paul

      none because they don’t care they have already made there minds up even before u get there i’ve been reading a lot of complaints about these arsehole’s as its going the rich get richer the poor get nothing as always i would like to see this goverment survive on benefits for 6 months an see how long they would last.

  • Aldo

    Been there and I recorded the conversation !

  • Horace Hopworthy

    Please all note that under section 36 of the DPA, an individual is allowed to record a meeting without the organisations knowledge or permission for domestic purposes. The organisation, however, has to inform the client if it wishes to record a meeting. Please use this right. In some cases courts may allow you to release your recordings to the courts!

  • John

    I just don’t want to live no more i can’t find a reliable lift to get to my appointments

  • paul

    ATOS are liying scum bags for everyone they get off esa,pip they get money for i had an esa assessment 5 months ago were this so called nurse who thinks shes a doctor scored me no points when i got report back of them she put things down that i didn’t even say she even stated she took my blood pressure when she didn’t even touch me so i appealed there decision an won my appeal last week after 5 months of waiting.

    • Irene Saunders

      Same here,how are they getting away with this?

  • Morgan Mpc

    After my husband/carer had left the room as i was upset as i had been asked a question about my ptsd that I did not want him to hear the reply to.. she asked me other questions including if i had ever considered suicide, in a nutshell i said yes, but it was no different to the questions that are asked of me when i go to my talking therapies, i replied, yes I do consider it but am not selfish and also I am scared of death. The thing is, the question she asked is a regular one asked of people receiving treatment for PTSD, anxiety and depression. I can only presume that the people are upset at the question as they have only ever been given anti depressants and received no counselling or other assistance.

    • peter taylor

      Wow really ?
      So you equate your own search for help via counselling and the like with an intrusive coerced investigation, which is asking a question that you do not “score points” for, i.e. is completely irrelevant and is a question that should be backed up with trained staff to support that person !!!
      Do you see the difference now ?

      • Morgan Mpc

        and you have a very nasty tone in your writing that i do not like and has upset me ,,, in fact your attitude was worse than the PIP interview!!…

        • peter taylor

          Well Morgan I can only apologize for upsetting you, but don’t take me too seriously, or yourself for that matter
          “angels fly cos they don’t take themselves seriously ”
          You appeared to make excuses for that question to be asked and then” blame” the applicant for not having been asked the “Suicide” question before.

          • Morgan Mpc

            Thank you for the apology.. 🙂

            No it was not meant as blame to the applicant, if there was any blame it was aimed at the treatment, or non treatment, they had received and therefore was not used to such questioning.. hoe that makes sense 🙂

    • T Davies

      I have had professional counselling twice in two decades. First time was under a psychotherapist after suicide attempt, second time CBT from my GP surgery. Being asked about depression and suicide by a trained specialist takes time and is approached carefully over many sessions. The professional is careful to sound considerate and sympathetic and they change the subject if they can see it is causing distress that may be harmful. My ATOS assessor however was indifferent to the point of cruel. Her bluntness and the tick box nature of her questioning was very different to counselling. Her facial expression was bordering on contempt. It is one thing to discuss deeply distressing personal experiences with a mental health expert that you have agreed to talk to, quite another to be bullied into talking about it by someone who is little more than an office clerk working for the money. That is why many people are upset.

      • Morgan Mpc

        I would report her as you say, she was not a health professional but ‘ by someone who is little more than an office clerk working for the money. ‘ ergo she should not have been doing an assessment.
        Just a thought…
        However, I agree with the first part having been there myself and with psychiatrists, psychologists and the CBT through my doctors.

  • Adam R Haystacks

    I was refused PIP Even though I have cognative impairment epilepsy and neads (non epileptic attack disorder) aswell as a history of suicide attempts and ongoing mental health problems resulting. ended up at a tribunural where i was quite literaly griled with so many questions i nearly passed out in the chair and to top it off one of three people at the front i think DWP just sat there staring at me with a vicious face to the point i generaly felt scared.

  • Simon Sheard

    My assessment for pip through ATOS which was negative to say the least was a total joke. As it’s meant to go on points system for qualifying for both parts which up until this assessment, I was getting higher rate mobility due to back pain which means I can’t walk stand or stay seated for any decent amounts of time & I also received middle rate for care due to passing out spells which caused falls & made me become confused, upset & agitated. My health has got worse if anything but this time I didn’t qualify for either part as didn’t score even 1 point even though I attended the meeting using both my walking sticks as I always use. The assessor repeatedly pointing out how much pain I appeared to her to be in. I gave her the rear part for my repeat prescriptions. So how they work out that in my case I don’t qualify for a single point is beyond me as what more do they need. I’m suffering with bad depression, undiagnosed blackouts, I use 2 walking sticks & I’m on 3 different types of morphine & I’m waiting for spinal pain relief injections. What more does a person have to do to qualify for some type of help. My sister used to drive my mobility car for me to get around & since having everything stopped I rarely leave my home. What part of personnel independence am I left with.. Getting to the point where I’m considering illegal substances to help with depression & pain. Maybe if I became some sort of addict I’d get help.

  • Irene Saunders

    I had an esa assesment 6 days before 2nd major shoulder surgery on 12 Jan 17 as well as slipped discs and nerve impingment in my neck and awaiting ops on both elbows and 2 weeks after surgery have been deemed fit for work….been 6 weeks with no money and am waiting for the mandatory reconsideration reply,I asked the job centre today for a token so I could access food from a food bank and they said no because I’m not in receipt of any benefit I did not qualify, I’m so ill and in excruciating pain and not doing well as I’m so weak trying to do physio makes me feel faint,also was admitted to hospital 3 weeks ago with a kidney infection,also the assessor lied and said she examined me and my grips were normal she did not touch me at all. I will go to appeal and will probably be asked why I’m not dead yet, the kidney infection made me delusional and I really thought the dwp were out to kill me off,perhaps they are,what hurts me the most is I was a good hairdresser with my own little barbershop until 2yrs ago and struggled till I couldn’t hold my arms up anymore so had to give up my lease,my upper joints are now all buckled up through doing the job I loved,all I ask is for the time out to be operated on and to recover from very painful surgery.I can’t sign on as I’m to ill to meet their requirements as i am laid up on morphine the only escape I get from this nightmare of watching my life fall apart is when I’m asleep.good luck to everyone and thanks for reading as I don’t feel so on my own now

    • Carole Ann Jones

      Your not on your own, believe me. I too am on Morphine and other drugs to ease my pain and after everything that has been said about these pip examinations I am dreading my next one. Why I have to go I do not know as I am 67 and I have a degenerative problem with my spine and discs. How can these people overturn a decision made by a Consultant that operated on me five times. I heard that some of the people who do these examinations are not qualified and for every person that they stop claiming pip they are awarded £60 for each one?????? Just saying! My sister had been on it for 29 years, she can hardly breathe or walk , and they said she was fit enough to work. Her Consultant is going mad.

      • Irene Saunders

        Thanks Carol, it seems to me we are easy targets as too ill to fight back,my daughter wrote to our mp and no reply as yet, I found a solicitor who will defend my case but they take 40% on a no win no fee basis,will post on here the result from the mandatory reconsideration and I’m not holding my breath,how you getting on with your pain relief? I tried the patches and it gave me too much the paramedic said it must be faulty,I was hallucinatino for 3 days so I’m now on dyhdrocodeine and zopiclone, I find an Epsom salt bath aromatherapy oil and an electric heat pad a comfort,

    • newestbeginning

      Good lord!!! No words…..

      If you can get to your local soup kitchen, they will welcome you and feed you – no questions asked. The one I volunteer at offers a huge meal with tons of variety – bring your own container if you have any leftovers to take home. Sometimes at the end of the serving time, we will make an extra run around the room to offer seconds of stuff that is left over – fruit, dessert, soup… They may also have lists of other community resources that might be of help.

      Wishing you well…

      • Irene Saunders

        Where are you based? Thank you for your kind words x

        • newestbeginning

          North Carolina.

          I wonder if you could get help from a Church outreach?

      • Irene Saunders

        Got my decision on my ma datory resolution and it’s a positive 1 ,I watched I Daniel Blake and it made me cry as so true to life about a carer who’s wife died and the kicking he got from the job centre gave him a heart attack it made me realise how lucky I am, we are not numbers we are human beings unlike these inhumane cruel Government henchman

        • newestbeginning

          Is a positive a good thing?

          So sorry that you have suffered Irene. It is too easy to forget our shared humanity. Thanks for reminding me.

  • Gail pinkerton

    Epilepsy , type 1 diabetes , severe asthma , kidney and liver disease , no thyroid , anxiety , depression , recovering at the moment from a fractured skull due to a fall , these are what my daughter suffers from , been turned down since pip came in , now having to go to court , same questions were asked of her , even asked how she would kill her self , disgrace !!!!, pointless having assesments , as they lie through their teeth , i honestly struggle to understand how these people sleep at night , they play god with vunerable peoplea lives ,i personally can not wait for her court date , i will take this as high as i can , i hope you all get the outcome you all deserve .

  • Robert Elias

    I am attending an assessment on Monday with someone I support in the community. Any tips to keep him safe

    • Meanderthal

      You are his advocate i presume, formal or informal.
      As time served veteran working in the field of mental health and having supported many of my clients through this degrading and dehumanising assessment process my advice is as follows:

      Introduce yourself (to the assessor) and state why you are in attendance. (moral support/advocate)

      Take a notepad and pen with you, make sure it is visible to the assessor.

      Do not engage any further in conversation with the assessor unless they address you directly.

      If the assessor asks any innapropriate questions of your client, remind the client they do not have to respond if the question makes then more stressed.

      If any innapropriate questions are put to the client, or your client is treated disrespectfully in any way, note it down on the notepad.

      If the assessor asks what you are writing, simply smile and tell them it is simply an aide memoire for you and your client. (confidential if they ask to see the notes but i doubt they will.)

      Always keep a calm professional demenour throughout the interview.

      Follow the above advice and you may find the assessment process is professional and courteous throughout.

  • Alstair Davies

    Got to remember most of these idots are not even doctors

  • Debra

    I was asked to go for a drink by a Disability Advisor some years ago, this disgusted me. He was supposed to be helping me, obviously he was helping himself.
    A year or so later I lost my ESA. I had to fight for it. I appeared at the Jobcentre not long after Spine Surgery, yes, I wasn’t at my best!! I asked for help, they wanted to sit me with Romeo, I refused. I cried that day, I was in an awful lot of pain and discomfort, the Security Guard, a hairy Female, didn’t seem to appreciate me, a Disabled Woman in pain, and stood over me whilst I spoke to the person in the main reception part of the Jobcentre. This person asked me the Suicide question. I was asked ‘had I ever attempted to take my own life’ I was very honest. I had been very low in my early part of my life. Now I’m older and wiser. I got my ESA back. I wish I had made an official complaint about Romeo, that would have pleased me no end. I now have PTSD. I hope nobody from any department in the DWP ever treats me like a second rate Human Being again, because I am not guaranteed to be so nice anymore. Good luck all.

  • Chris Marshall

    I suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder and my assessment but ATOS was traumatic for me. I was asked the same questions about my mental health last month. My assessor asked why I failed to commit suicide? Also if I did attempt to kill myself how would I do it? I felt emensely embarrassed and it set me off into a deep spiral. I was also constantly asked for proof of scars to prove my suicide attempts when both me and my partner stated that I would attempt in any way that was convenient at the time and that luckily she was physically restrain me to stop me from it. But after all the traumatic and degrading questioning and explaining how I’m incapable of living unaided I was denied pip.

  • Here’s an excellent blog Alice Kirby has written for other benefit claimants who feel suicidal. I hope it’s helpful for anyone who has been affected by this news story: https://medium.com/@Alice__Kirby/a-letter-to-fellow-benefit-claimants-who-feel-suicidal-75ae2dd6e41a#.m42fopbmc