‘Shocking’ NHS stats show nearly half ESA claimants have attempted suicide

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“Shocking” NHS statistics have revealed that almost half of the people claiming the main out-of-work disability benefit in England have attempted suicide at some point in their life.

The figures, showing rates of self-harm among claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA), were published by NHS Digital in September 2016, but have apparently never been reported by the media.

Although only one in 15 adults (6.7 per cent) in the general population had ever made a suicide attempt, that rose to 43.2 per cent for ESA claimants, and as high as 47.1 per cent for female ESA claimants.

They also show that two-thirds of ESA claimants (66 per cent) had thought of taking their own life at some point, compared to 20.6 per cent in the overall adult population.

The levels could now be even higher, because the survey was carried out three years ago, before a further series of social security cuts and reforms, including new cuts of nearly £30 a week to new claimants placed in the ESA work-related activity group that were implemented in April.

The report says the figures indicate that ESA claimants are “a population in great need of support”.

Campaigners say they highlight the need for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to abandon its hard-line approach to forcing disabled people off benefits and into work through damaging rhetoric and unforgiving sanctions – with the department’s latest plans published today – and adopt a more understanding, supportive and sensitive approach.

But when asked to comment on the figures, DWP refused to answer a series of questions from Disability News Service (DNS) and instead issued a short statement, stating that suicide was “a very complex issue” and pointing out that its staff had “clear guidance” to follow “if a claimant expresses a desire to self-harm”.

Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who uncovered the figures, said she had felt “shock and horror followed by, on reflection, an absence of surprise” when she first saw them.

She said: “The government have committed to a ‘zero suicide’ approach yet, even though this population has pretty much the highest rates of suicide out there, the government is acting in a way to make things worse, despite the testimony of claimants, disabled activist groups, health professionals and even the United Nations.”

She said the figures for ESA claimants would always be higher than the general population because illness and disability increase the risk of dying by suicide, as do factors such as poverty, levels of inequality in society and experience of trauma.

But she said the figures revealed by the survey are “a hell of a lot higher” than suggested by other research.

She said: “I think it shows that there are very specific pressures on people on ESA now that make living unbearable.

“Being treated like a second-class citizen, being blamed for not being the ideal neoliberal subject, being denied the basic financial means to survive, being sanctioned for being too ill to make an appointment – these belittlements monopolise the internal world and the result is often now suicide.”

Watts said DWP should now start treating ESA claimants with “dignity and respect” and shift from a regime of punishment “to a culture that encourages things like voluntary work which are good for mental health, but too frightening a possibility for many claimants who fear any sign of activity will be used to stop their benefits”.

She added: “Obviously the overwhelming reason to do this is moral, but it is also in the economic interests of the government.

“Each suicide is estimated to cost £1.7 million, so a compassionate welfare system makes sense at every level.”

She said she believed the figures would now be “significantly higher” three years on.

She said: “The rates of poverty, despair, shame, self-harm and suicide have risen exponentially in the past few years.

“This is partly because of cuts to the NHS and social care budgets, and partly because the government has been demonising ESA claimants – cutting benefits, sanctioning people, making claimants feel worklessness equals worthlessness, and so on.

“We take in messages of our value from the environment we live in – so the mix of cuts and demonising messages have a direct effect on rates of suicide.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said the figures were “extremely shocking”.

He said he did not understand why the government had failed to prioritise ESA claimants as part of its cross-government suicide prevention strategy.

There is no mention of the rates of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide among ESA claimants in the latest progress report on the strategy, which was published in January, four months after the NHS Digital figures were published.

McArdle said: “If they were sincere about decreasing the rate of suicide in the population they would focus on this group and they would put in place measures that we have campaigned for for five years to prevent suicide.”

Despite Black Triangle’s campaigning efforts, there is still no “safety protocol” for GPs to report to the government those incidents of self-harm that have been linked to the ESA eligibility test, the work capability assessment (WCA).

He also pointed to DWP’s failure – despite its promise to a tribunal – to ease the WCA’s impact on people with mental health problems by ensuring that further medical evidence is obtained from health professionals who know them well.

He said: “We believe the government has no real interest in doing this because its over-arching goal is to reduce spending on disabled people and social security.”

He said ESA claimants needed “some security and a way back into work – only if that is deemed clinically appropriate and, above all, safe – that doesn’t penalise them, whereas at the moment the whole scheme amounts to one big extrajudicial penal system that pushes people further over the edge”.

Anita Bellows, a researcher with Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Although these figures are shocking, what is even more shocking is to not have more details, for example the split between claimants who never attempted suicide before embarking on the long WCA and ESA journey and those who did.

“The lack of data gives an escape route to DWP, but what we are certain of is that ESA claimants is a group who should be treated with sensitivity, caution and professionalism, qualities which are all lacking from their treatment by DWP and the assessors.” 

DWP declined to answer questions from DNS about the NHS report, including whether it accepted that years of cuts, sanctions and demonisation of ESA claimants might have contributed to the figures; and whether they showed that it needed to be more supportive towards this group of claimants, and shift away from a culture of punishment.

Instead, a DWP spokesman said in a statement: “Suicide is a very complex issue, so it would be wrong to link it solely to anyone’s benefit claim.

“There is clear guidance in place for DWP staff members to follow if a claimant expresses a desire to self-harm, to ensure the claimant receives appropriate care and support.”

Samaritans can be contacted free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123 or emailing [email protected]