The introduction of tougher fit-to-work tests for sick and disabled people have coincided with hundreds more suicides and thousands more cases of mental illness, academic researchers have said.
In findings that could be hugely damaging for the Government’s welfare reform agenda, experts from the universities of Liverpool and Oxford said that up to 590 additional suicides, 279,000 cases of mental ill health and 725,000 more prescriptions for antidepressants between 2010 and 2013 were associated with the introduction of the more stringent Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
While the study could not prove cause and effect, the leading mental health charity Mind said the findings were “worrying” and evidence that the new fit-to-work tests could be “seriously harmful”.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists also said the research was of “high quality”, adding that it called into question the wisdom of the Government’s reforms.
However, the Department for Work and Pensions has challenged the findings, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. They come after a coroner’s report in September blamed the suicide of a disabled man on the WCA.
Labour said the new findings should be “devastating for the Government”.
The research compared local trends in suicide, antidepressant prescribing and self-reported cases of mental ill health in English local authorities, with the numbers of disability assessments carried out between 2004 and 2013.
In those areas with the highest rates of reassessment using the WCA, there were also higher increases of all three factors. The researchers said that despite carrying out extensive work to rule out other confounding factors, the data suggested the increase could be linked to WCA.
“Our study provides evidence that the policy in England of reassessing the eligibility of [disability] benefit recipients using the WCA may have unintended but serious consequences for population mental health,” they conclude. “There is a danger that these adverse effects outweigh any benefits that may or may not arise from moving people off disability benefits.”
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