Minister warned about benefits system after applicant’s suicide

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A coroner has written to work and pensions secretary Mel Stride warning that the workings of 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 report to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after an inquest into the death of the man, who had been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. The coroner stressed she was not making a causal link between the man’s suicide in March 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 did not come to light until the hearing. But the inquest heard an “ongoing feature” of the man’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 earlier, he had been seen by a 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 the appointment, but the call went unanswered. The victim was expecting a call from a DWP representative the next day. On that 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 experiences mental health service users had with the DWP. Evidence was also given by the NHS mental health trust’s group nurse director, who said the issues identified by the psychiatrist were national, and that – in Gomersal’s words – “they were debilitating for service users”. The mental health trust’s crisis team started a food bank three years ago to support service users, and the DWP has been invited to attend meetings of the Cumbria Suicide Prevention Group: one of its officials in Cumbria sat in on several meetings. 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.” 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 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”. Earlier this year, a survey by mental health charity Mind found that twothirds of people with experience of mental health problems said 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.”