Image from medical journal websiteThe reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants for employment and support allowance using the work capability assessment is linked to an additional 590 suicides in England, according to new research by academics from Oxford and Liverpool universities. It is also implicated in an additional 279,000 people developing mental health conditions and 725,000 more antidepressant prescriptions being issued.{jcomments on}

6 suicides for every 10,000 reassessments
The research has just been published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a leading medical journal.

The researchers looked at suicide rates, cases of reported mental health problems and prescribing of anti-depressants in 149 local authorities in England. They found a direct correlation between the number of IB claimants being reassessed for ESA and the number of suicides and people experiencing mental health issues.

For every 10,000 claimants reassessed in each area there were an additional 6 suicides, 2,700 extra cases of reported mental health conditions and 1,020 more antidepressant prescriptions issued.

No other explanation found
The researchers say they cannot prove a direct causal link, not least because the DWP refuse to publish clear data relating to claimant deaths. But they also say that that it is likely that the reassessment process was the cause.

They point out that the rises were not linked to the number of claimants in a particular area, to the levels of mental health or to incomes. Instead, the rises were only linked to a rise in reassessments from IB to ESA in any given local authority.

In addition, when the researchers at looked groups of people in the same locations areas who would not be affected by IB to ESA reassessment, they found that there was no corresponding rise in suicides, mental health problems or antidepressant use.

The researchers conclude that:

“The programme of reassessing people on disability benefits using the Work Capability Assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing. This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits.”

And, they warn that health professionals cannot just ignore the issue. They point out that:

“Given that doctors and other health professional have professional and statutory duties to protect and promote the health of patients and the public, our evidence that this process is potentially harming the recipients of these assessments raises major ethical issues for those involved. Regulators and other bodies representing health professionals should advocate for the benefits and harms of alternative disability assessment policies to be established though a well-designed trial.”

Legal action?
Not surprisingly, the DWP have rejected the report out of hand rather than showing any hint of concern for the people they have a duty to provide support to.

But refusing to even consider the possibility that the WCA causes harm, in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, may have consequences.

The last few weeks have also seen the revelations that a coroner’s prevention of future deaths letter relating to the WCA in 2010 was illegally ignored by the DWP. The department also withheld details of the letter from Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the WCA.

In addition, the DWP appears not to have issued a reminder to health professionals to follow proper procedures relating to potentially suicidal claimants, having said they would do so in response to another prevention of future deaths coroner’s letter.

We may now be reaching a point where DWP staff, health professionals and government ministers are opening the door to legal action being taken against them for their part in the preventable deaths of many hundreds of sick and disabled claimants.

You can read the full Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health article here

You can read a Buzzfeed article in which the authors challenge the DWP’s dismissal of their findings here.


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