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Watchdog reports suicide over benefits cut

A health watchdog has reported a woman with a history of stress-related depression committed suicide as a result of benefit cuts which were made after a work capability assessment.

The woman, identified as Miss DE took her own life shortly after her benefits were cut by nearly 30% following an Atos assessment. The Mental Welfare Commission (MWC) for Scotland stated that they could find no other reason why the woman in her early 50s, would commit suicide at home on New Year’s Eve 2011. Further investigation revealed that she had no history of suicidal tendencies, was looking forward to returning to work and planning on getting married.

Chief executive of the MWC, Dr Donald Lyons stated “this lady had a lot to look forward to. She was getting married. She was being treated. She was undertaking voluntary work. She had a good social network”

After interviews with mental health professionals involved in her treatment, GP, friends and DWP staff the commission concluded that the assessment was to blame for her suicide stating:

“there wasn’t anything else which we could identify that would lead us to believe that there was any other factor in her life that would have resulted in her decision to end her life.”

In the commission’s report on Miss DE’s case there were calls for the review of the DWP assessment procedures to take account of people with mental health histories and needs. Suggestions included routine collection of medical reports in mental health assessments, at least two sources of information be used and that GPs and psychiatrists should be told of the “potentially challenging situation” that their patients may be faced with.

The commission confirmed “one of the reasons we undertook this investigation is because the issues identified affect many people in similar circumstances, a number of clinicians had expressed concern about the impact on patients of this process and reassessment.”

In a survey of Scottish psychiatrists by the MWC it was found that 13% reported at least one of their patients attempted suicide after a work capacity assessment, with 75% confirming neither the DWP or Atos had asked them to take part in the assessments or provide medical evidence about their patients.

Miss DE was given an hour-long assessment by an Atos appointed doctor, on behalf of the DWP. Evidence was not sought from her psychiatrist or her doctor and she was not requested to complete self-assessment questionnaire. The Atos assessor then finally concluded that Miss DE presented “no evidence that she has a significant disability of mental health function”.

The DWP’s decision to cut her benefits was confirmed to Miss DE in a letter on 9 December 2011. The letter explained that she had scored zero points and that’s two unsuccessful attempts to call her had been made. A further explanation of this decision was given to Miss DE by a welfare rights officer explaining that she would lose her incapacity benefit of £94.25p per week and that this would be replaced by the weekly jobseekers allowance of £67.50p . Miss DE then became very upset and worried about paying her mortgage.

In a statement the DWP confirmed:

“DWP remains committed to keeping their processes for collecting further evidence under constant review and will improve these processes where possible, it remains important to retain a balance between the added value of further evidence in any claim for employment and support allowance and the demands on the time of GPs and other healthcare professionals.”

It also added that it would work with Atos and other stakeholders on improving the way it informed claimants about process and its questionnaires, making sure that assessors made it clear that they did not have access to claimant’s medical notes.