Ministers have refused to include claimants of out-of-work disability benefits as a high-risk group in their latest suicide prevention strategy, despite “irrefutable evidence” from NHS research.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has listed “common risk factors” such as physical illness, financial difficulty and social isolation in its new Suicide Prevention Strategy for England.
But it fails to include claimants of universal credit and employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been found to have limited capability for work (LCW) or work-related activity (LCWRA).
Ministers have failed to include this group despite NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey showing in 2016 that more than 43 per cent of ESA claimants had said they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared with about seven per cent of non-ESA claimants.
Five years ago, the department refused to explain why ESA claimants had not been included as a high-risk group in a cross-government suicide prevention plan, and why DHSC was refusing to warn agencies and departments that ESA claimants were at high risk of suicide.
Now it has failed again to explain its refusal to include LCW or LCWRA as a risk factor for suicide, even though the strategy insists that practice and policy on suicide prevention “should be informed by high-quality data and research”.
Dr Jay Watts, a disabled activist and consultant clinical psychologist, praised the progress made by the new strategy in acknowledging groups such as autistic people and those “subjected to intimate partner violence” as priority groups for the first time.
But she said the strategy also appeared “strategically crafted to insulate the government from the harsh consequences of its own policies”.
She said: “The strategy recognises financial difficulty as a risk factor yet fails to make the direct link to welfare reforms that have significantly impacted claimants since austerity measures began – reforms that are well-documented for increasing suicide risk.”
She added: “Five years ago, we urgently flagged the need for ESA claimants to be recognized as a high-risk group in our national suicide prevention approach.
“This was based on a crucial finding that corroborated what activists had been telling and showing us for years and was rooted in irrefutable evidence from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS).
“Given the APMS’s stature among researchers, it’s startling that the new Suicide Prevention Strategy itself overtly highlights the survey as a crucial future data source, but simultaneously overlooks its shocking revelation that 43 per cent of ESA claimants have attempted suicide.
“This is in stark contrast to the less than seven per cent of other adults – a disparity that’s more pronounced than for most other groups highlighted as high-risk in the strategy, denying claimants yet again the recognition and targeted help so desperately needed.”
Although the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has agreed three actions to support claimants at risk of suicide as part of the new strategy’s action plan, the department confirmed yesterday (Wednesday) that all three had been agreed in previous years.
It is commissioning a “call alert and transcription service” to “support the quick identification of people who raise suicidal thoughts when using DWP call helplines and services” and to “help staff identify these callers quickly and provide timely signposting”.
This appears to involve the use of “speech analytics” technology, although it is not clear exactly how this will work.
DWP has also said it will “identify opportunities to review and strengthen guidance and staff training” around claimants who disclose suicidal thoughts.
The department has been repeatedly criticised over the failure of its staff to follow this guidance, known as the six-point plan, and has previously promised to remind staff of its existence.
DWP also committed to “mandatory two-day mental health awareness training for all its frontline staff”, which again has previously been announced.
Watts said it was hard not to conclude that the failure to include the LCW/LCWRA group as high-risk was a “deliberate attempt to deflect from the repercussions of governmental policies”, when DWP’s actions show “show tacit acknowledgment of a problem”.
She said the measures taken by DWP were “not only insufficient but actively mask the deep, impactful changes needed”.
This includes the need for “the immediate cessation of the benefits sanctions system, known to drive many to desperate acts, and an end to the hostile policies that link worklessness with worthlessness, making life feel not only more perilous but also disposable, as countless claimants have shared”.
She added: “It’s perverse to insist DWP agents such as work coaches signpost suicidal claimants to help when they themselves are so often the straw that broke the camel’s back – an institutional gaslighting made worse by the fact so many claimants have been desperately seeking help from mental health services with waitlists of over one million already.
“The strategy, whilst laudable elsewhere, then puts a happy, smiley thumbs up of progress on the DWP’s failing, flailing system, obscuring, and becoming complicit in its violence.
“If every life truly matters, then saving them should be paramount – even if it embarrasses the government.”
A DHSC spokesperson refused to explain why the strategy did not include LCWRA/LCW claimants as a priority or high-risk group.
But he said in a statement: “Our suicide prevention strategy delivers a firm commitment to see the number of suicides in England decrease within 2.5 years and contains over 100 actions to save lives, provide early intervention and support anyone going through crisis.
“The strategy is informed by existing evidence and data, engagement with experts in the field, and by the responses we received to the mental health call for evidence.
“The groups of concern we have identified are not exhaustive, and many of the actions in the strategy will benefit people claiming benefits such as employment and support allowance.
“For example, we will launch a mental health impact assessment tool to inform policymaking across central and local government to ensure that policies consider the mental health impacts, particularly on vulnerable groups.”
Picture: DHSC offices in Whitehall
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