Study finds Work Capability Assessments have contributed to 600 additional suicides

Research suggests the areas of England with the greatest use of assessments have also seen the sharpest rise in reported suicides


The government’s controversial Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) could have contributed to 600 ‘additional’ suicides, according to new research.

A study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health claims that the areas of England with the greatest use of WCAs have also seen the sharpest rise in reported suicides, mental health problems, and antidepressant prescribing.

The connection reported by the study is ‘independent of baseline conditions in these areas, including baseline prevalence of benefit receipt, long-term time trends in these outcomes, economic trends and other characteristics associated with risk of mental ill-health’. Importantly, the increases followed, rather than preceded, the reassessment process.

Since 2010 over a million claimants of the main out-of-work disability benefit in the UK had their eligibility reassessed using a new tougher assessment. This is the first medical study to focus on the connection.

The report accuses the government, through their assessments, of carrying out ‘policy experiments’ on the public without real consideration of the consequences.

It recommends that in assessing the costs and benefits of policies that introduce tougher medical assessments for disability benefits, policymakers ‘need to take into account the consequences, not only in terms of the effects on employment, but also the impact on health and the risk of poverty of people with disabilities.’

Previous research by the journal has indicated that similar assessment policies have tended to shift people from disability benefits to other benefits (eg, unemployment benefits) rather than moving people into employment.

“Our study provides evidence that the policy in England of reassessing the eligibility of benefit recipients using the WCA may have unintended but serious consequences for population mental health, and there is a danger that these adverse effects outweigh any benefits that may or may not arise from moving people off disability benefits.

“Although the explicit aim of welfare reform in the UK is to reduce ‘dependency,’ it is likely that targeting the people living in the most vulnerable conditions with policies that are harmful to health, will further marginalise already excluded groups, reducing, rather than increasing, their independence.”

Luciana Berger, Labour’s shadow minister for mental health, said the research raised ‘serious questions’ about the use of the WCA. A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) called the report ‘wholly misleading’.

The link between suicides and WCAs September came under the spotlight in September, when a coroner ruled that the suicide of 60-year-old Michael O’Sullivan was triggered by the assessment process. Despite being diagnosed with severe depression, Mr O’Sullivan was ruled fit for work before committing suicide in 2013.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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