Suicide watch over benefit cuts

Tracey Lees: hit by the 'bedroom tax'. Photograph: Jon Savage
Tracey Lees: hit by the 'bedroom tax'. Photograph: Jon Savage
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MENTAL health workers in Scotland are having to deal with people contemplating suicide as a direct result of benefit reforms, a new report reveals.

Changes to assessments on whether people are fit to work and new housing benefit rules, dubbed the “bedroom tax”, introduced in April 2013, have been blamed for rising levels of stress and anxiety.

Now a survey by the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH) charity involving their staff and service users has found that 98 per cent believe changes to the benefits system have had a detrimental effect on mental health.

Most seriously, staff reported six occasions in recent times when they had to take action to help avert suicides directly related to concerns about welfare reform issues.

The revelations come amidst growing concern about the impact of welfare reforms. Last month a report by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland concluded that the way in which a woman with a history of depression was assessed for benefits led to her suicide less than a month later.

Work capability assessments, introduced in 2008, have come under fire over complaints that people are being incorrectly assessed as fit to work and losing benefits. Housing benefit changes, where social housing residents whose homes are deemed larger than they need lose part of their benefits, have also had an impact on incomes.

The SAMH Worried Sick survey, based on the views of about 200 charity users and 58 managers, reported that 79 per cent of users said they were facing a reduced income as a result of welfare changes, while 57 per cent were affected by the “bedroom tax”.

Nine out of ten SAMH staff said they now had to provide extra support. This included six incidents in which staff had to carry out “suicide interventions” directly related to welfare reform issues.

The report also revealed that half of those surveyed were unaware of government support schemes, such as the Scottish Welfare Fund, which has replaced Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans. Only one in five said they had been informed of their eligibility for the Council Tax Reduction Scheme.

The SAMH report flagged up the need for more guidance on how to access information and support, and it called on the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure healthcare professionals nominated by a claimant are involved in the assessment process.

Billy Watson, chief executive of SAMH, said: “There is clear evidence that facing financial stress or living on a low income has a significant impact on an individual’s mental health. Recent welfare reforms concern us, as many people with mental health problems are simply too unwell to work, leaving them reliant on welfare support while they recover.”