Theresa May and mental health - first do no harm

By Bernadette Meaden
January 10, 2017

Theresa May could quite easily stop her own government making life much harder for people who have mental health problems.

When Disability Living Allowance was abolished, everybody receiving it, including those with mental health problems, had to be reassessed for the replacement benefit, Personal Independence Payment. So far, 55 per cent of people with a mental health problem have had their support reduced or withdrawn completely. For example, 62 per cent of people with personality disorders, 57 per cent of people experiencing psychosis, and 52 per cent of people with a behavioural disorder had their benefit reduced or withdrawn completely.

But these are just statistics. The suffering and anxiety caused by this whole process, for the person being assessed and for their whole family, cannot be overstated. Of course, people who are financially secure will never know this anxiety, but it is hard to imagine anything worse than having a fear of poverty piled on top of a serious mental illness. Theresa May could stop this tomorrow if she chose, by ending these assessments and removing this additional burden of anxiety. 

In November 2015, an academic study found that in England alone, the Work Capability Assessment was associated with an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems, and an additional 725,000 prescriptions for antidepressant medication. Ending the Work Capability Assessment would be one way Mrs May could reduce mental health problems at a stroke.

In recent years there has been a dramatic escalation in benefit sanctions for people with mental health problems. Tom Pollard of mental health charity Mind stated the obvious (though apparently not obvious to the DWP) when he said, “Stopping somebody’s benefits, or threatening to stop them, is completely the wrong approach to help people with mental health problems find work – it’s actually counterproductive. Pressurising someone to engage in often inappropriate activities under the threat of losing their benefit causes a huge deal of additional anxiety, often making people more unwell and less able to work,”

In November 2016, the government responded by announcing  that people who have a mental health condition will now be able to access hardship payments on receiving a benefit sanction. This begs the question, why put people through the stress and anxiety of a benefit sanction in the first place?  Vicki Nash of Mind said, “Sanctions do not work for people with mental health problems and are destroying lives, causing distress and anxiety for many.”

If Prime Minister May does not reverse these and other government policies which actively contribute to and exacerbate mental health problems, then her words on this subject will sound very hollow indeed.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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