A coroner has written to work and pensions secretary Mel Stride warning that processes in the benefit system can worsen symptoms of mental illness after a man killed himself amid fears over his application for universal credit.
Kirsty Gomersal, the area coroner for Cumbria, issued a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) following an inquest into the death of man diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety who took his own life in March.
The coroner stressed she was not making a causal link between the man’s suicide and his anxiety about his universal credit application. The causes of suicide are complex and there is rarely a single event or factor behind them.
The DWP was not called to give evidence at the inquest as the concerns around its role only came to light at the hearing itself.
But the inquest heard an “ongoing feature” of the victim’s anxiety was his application for universal credit and that this was at the forefront of his mind in the days before his death.
Two days before the man’s death, he was seen by an associate specialist psychiatrist from Cumbria, Northumberland Tyne & Wear NHS mental health trust who “considered [his] anxiety was exacerbated by his application for Universal Credit”.
The psychiatrist called the benefits office for help during his appointment, but the call went unanswered. The victim was expecting a call from a DWP representative the next day.
On that following day – the day before he died – he spoke to the duty registered mental health nurse. The coroner’s report stated: “He remained very anxious and his main concern was the application for Universal Credit.”
The psychiatrist expressed concerns to the inquest about the experience of mental health service users with the DWP which were not limited to this particular case. Evidence was also given by the NHS mental health trust’s group nurse director – a registered mental health nurse – who said the issues identified by the psychiatrist were national, and that it was “important to address these issues as they were debilitating for service users”, in Gomersal’s words.
The mental health trust’s crisis team started a food bank three years ago to support service users, while the DWP has been invited to the Cumbria Suicide Prevention Group – an invitation that the DWP confirmed to the Observer it had accepted, with one of its officials in Cumbria attending several meetings of the group.
Gomersal’s letter raised three “matters of concern”, saying there was a risk of future deaths unless action was taken.
“Current DWP procedures may not be practical for those with mental health illness and can exacerbate symptoms,” she wrote. “I heard evidence that … the number of and length of DWP forms required to be completed can be overwhelming for someone with a mental health illness. This is perpetuated if the applicant cannot get help to complete the paperwork.”
She also expressed concern over long telephone queues to speak to a DWP adviser, and added that “having to travel long distances for appointments can be detrimental for those with a mental health illness”.
The coroner’s report comes as the government lines up a raft of measures tightening the rules around benefit claims, including making it harder to qualify for disability benefits. Last week Disability News Service reported that a 2019 internal government report, disclosed after a two-year freedom of information battle, concluded that the design of universal credit “is inadequate for vulnerable groups”, with some claimants “not adequately supported”.
Earlier this year a survey by mental health charity Mind found that two-thirds of people with experience of mental health problems said that going through their benefits assessment made their mental health worse.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our condolences are with the victim’s family. We will review the coroner’s report and respond in due course.”
William Turner is a seasoned U.K. correspondent with a deep understanding of domestic affairs. With a passion for British politics and culture, he provides insightful analysis and comprehensive coverage of events within the United Kingdom.