An update on the welfare system for people living with mental illness
2020 hasn’t been easy for many people. For those of us living with mental illness, it has been particularly tough. Our recent survey found that a huge 79% of people living with mental illness have found that their mental health has got worse with the measures introduced during lockdown. As a result of the ongoing pandemic, support from the government has been desperately needed. Since March, there has been a number of changes to the welfare system. So we thought it would be handy to get our in-house expert, Policy Manager Will Johnstone, to explain what it all means.
The past year has been a busy time for Rethink Mental Illness’s work on welfare. Our aim, as always, has been to build momentum around a social security system which effectively supports people severely affected by mental illness. Primarily, that means we need a welfare system which doesn’t actively damage the mental health of the people who use it.
We need a welfare system which doesn’t actively damage the mental health of the people who use it.
That’s why we launched our Stop Benefit Deaths campaign back in March, calling for an independent inquiry into the deaths of vulnerable people who rely on the welfare system. Barely two weeks later, as the effects of the lockdown became clear, we signed a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, calling for emergency measures to protect welfare claimants who live with mental health problems from the impacts of the pandemic. Many of the measures we called for – such as the three-month suspension of conditionality – were introduced in the emergency Coronavirus Act.
The suspension of conditionality was a vital pause for people severely affected by mental illness and we immediately saw the difference it made. When we asked our supporters and campaigners how the pandemic was affecting them, many said that the welfare system was not their major concern. This was the first time we’ve undertaken research which asked about social security and been told by some people that it’s giving them the help they need in a fairly straightforward way.
Unfortunately, the three-month suspension for conditionality and sanctions was due to come to an end on June 30th. With this deadline looming, we brought together 20 organisations to write to the Secretary of State to call for the suspension of conditionality to be extended for a further six months.
Despite pressure from the media and the opposition front bench, the government pressed ahead with allowing conditionality and sanctions to be reintroduced.
This means that the less pressured approach that claimants were offered during the worst days of the pandemic is now gone. Instead, we again have a system in which new Universal Credit claimants who have said they are too unwell to work will be asked to find employment before their health has been fully assessed. The threat of sanctions will hang over the heads of people severely affected by mental illness, even though sanctions are now rare in practice.
The threat of sanctions will hang over the heads of people severely affected by mental illness, even though sanctions are now rare in practice.
But there have been some positive developments.
After tragic cases such as the death of Errol Graham – and 69 other cases of welfare claimants taking their own lives – there have been dangerous gaps uncovered in the DWP processes. Consequently, the Work and Pensions Select Committee recently pressed the Secretary of State on her plans to improve the ways that the DWP safeguards vulnerable claimants.
The Department recognised that vulnerable claimants need extra support, and are introducing safeguarding leads who will operate at a regional level, as well as a Serious Case Panel to make recommendations where themes emerge across cases. Further details are undoubtedly needed, but these announcements are grounds for cautious optimism. We welcome these announcements, though we’ll continue to call for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths to get a clear, independent view of why these deaths happened, how many people have been affected and what lessons should be learned.
So, while there have been encouraging signs in some areas, we know we are still a long way from having a benefit system that really works for people severely affected by mental illness.
We know we are still a long way from having a benefit system that really works for people severely affected by mental illness.
The reintroduction of conditionality and sanctions, in particular, presents a huge challenge to the mental health of people claiming Universal Credit. Many people are likely to be well enough to want to look for work when they’re claiming Universal Credit. But we don’t believe people living with mental illness who say they are too unwell to work should be required to do search for work before their needs are assessed.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of the UK is far from over, even as steps are being taken to lift the lockdown across the country. At a time when many more people are needing support from benefits, we need a system that reflects the needs and lives of people severely affected by mental illness. With mental health under unprecedented pressure, we can’t tolerate a benefit system that risks worsening the mental health of those who rely on it.
Rethink Mental Illness will keep working to ensure that the Department of Work and Pensions takes the needs of people severely affected by mental illness into account. If you want to support our work on welfare, sign up to become a campaigner.
If you’d like to support our ongoing campaign to Stop Benefit Deaths, please sign our petition.
For clear, practical advice and support for people experiencing issues with mental health and money visit the Mental Health and Money Advice Service
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Rethink Mental Illness campaigns nationally and locally to improve the lives of everyone living with mental illness. Together, we have pushed mental health up the public agenda and changed Government policy. Find out how you can get involved.
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