The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 17th March 2017

DWP suicide questions put mentally ill in despair

by Daphne Liddle

MAXIMUS, an agency carrying out benefit eligibility assessments on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), last week admitted that it routinely asks claimants suffering from depression and anxiety why they have not killed themselves.

Dr Jay Watts, a leading clinical psychologist, has warned that questions like this are one of the reasons behind an increase in suicides committed by people who have undergone the notorious Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

Disability rights activist Alice Kirby sparked a horrified reaction on social media last week after revealing how the healthcare professional who assessed her eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP) had asked her: “Can you tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet?”

Alison told the Disability News Service (DNS): “I was asked by a woman at the Atos [another agency also used by the DWP to carry out PIP assessments] PIP interview: ‘Why haven’t you killed yourself yet?’ I remember it very clearly. I left the room in tears and had my PIP cut. I was too afraid to complain in case they took all the money off me.”

Since then dozens of other claimants have come forward to report that they had faced the same or similar questions.

Then last week Maximus admitted routinely using questions like this with claimants who are mentally ill after one disabled campaigner produced a recording of his assessment, which was shared on line by the Disability News Service (DNS).

The recording reveals a Maximus assessor, described as an “occupational therapist”, questioning the claimant, John Hume. She asks him: “Back to some questions that we have to cover:

Have you ever tried to harm yourself or take your own life or needed to go to hospital?

Do you have any thoughts around that at the moment, any intentions or plans to hurt yourself currently?

When you say desires, how often are you having thoughts like that?

And what is it that stops you from acting on the thoughts that you have?

Can you think of any reason that you’re not doing that? Is it friends or family support?”

Hume’s assessment took place in Sunderland last September, and both Maximus and the DWP appear to have conceded that the DNS transcription of the questions is an accurate description of what took place.

Another anonymous claimant reported: “I got asked why I hadn’t successfully committed suicide yet. Was it because I was trying to con benefits? Then when I was sanctioned from ESA, the woman who phoned me to tell me said that if I had been more suicidal I would have had more hospital visits for injuries sustained.

“Because I didn’t have (how many?) hospital stays because of suicide attempts, they judged I wasn’t sufficiently suicidal to warrant sick benefits and she ruled I was fit for work. I have on-going physical conditions that resulted in me having to give up most of my work due to illness. The depression and severe anxiety developed due to on-going work capability assessments and constant threat of suspension of benefit. I then had to go to the Jobcentre. That is a whole other story of horrific humiliating degrading bullying. Deliberately designed to guide you to suicide.”

Dr Jay Watts told DNS that people should only be asked about suicidal ideation by a trained professional who can offer help, or someone in an “existing trusting relationship with the individual”.

She said that WCAs were “degrading and humiliating experiences for most if not all claimants” and were carried out in a space that was “not a trustworthy one”.

She said: “Individuals are required to parade their distress and feel compelled to answer intrusive questions (for the means to live relies on this).”

She added: “To ask about suicide or self-harm in this context brings huge risks. If someone is low or anxious, for example, made to feel they are a ‘skiver’ for needing benefits, an implication that if they were really ill they would have killed themselves can be the final straw. It may lead directly to an attempt on one’s life.”

In a statement, a Maximus spokesperson said that its role was “to carry out high quality and sensitive functional assessments”. He said: “Mr Hulme [sic] contacted us last year and a doctor reviewed the recording of his assessment and the report. We are satisfied that the healthcare professional who conducted the assessment did so in line with our policies and guidelines.”