Our social security system should be a source of support for everyone who needs it – including those experiencing mental health problems. Several years into the roll-out of the universal credit system, we wanted to find out whether the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) responds to the needs of people with mental health problems to ensure they can access universal credit (UC) fully. We spoke to almost 30 universal credit claimants with mental health problems, and the picture they painted was a worrying one.
The DWP has a duty to anticipate and plan how to meet the needs of disabled people, which can include those with mental health problems, and make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for them. This might mean offering a telephone appointment rather than a face-to-face meeting, or offering a private interview room within a busy job centre so sensitive information is kept private.
But we found in our research that this just is not happening in any systematic way. None of the people we spoke to reported being expressly asked whether they needed a reasonable adjustment. Claimants were not asked if they needed alternative methods of communication, nor how their mental health affected their ability to interact with the UC system. Instead, they faced barriers and problems making a claim and maintaining that claim.
The impact of this failure had a stark impact on the claimants we spoke to. Kevin* summed up his experience of the system by saying:
‘The government does not put the person at the centre of the need. They say, “This is a service and you must fit the box.”’
Jagath described his fear of sanctions, and the effect this has on him:
‘Quite a lot of the time, I’d really panic about actually going out and I would be late. Even if I was one minute late, I would be really panicking that they might sanction me or something. I even didn’t go to a few appointments because I just was so upset.’
Many of the problems that claimants raised with us have common-sense solutions. It would be straightforward for the government to ensure that claimants are asked whether they need a reasonable adjustment – and people with mental health problems should be told that adjustments are available to them. And a little flexibility will go a long way – tailoring the method of communication to reflect a client’s preferences will help to reduce worry and stress.
The environment of the job centre should be looked at too. Creating an environment in which claimants feel safe sharing sensitive information, for example about their mental health, would be an easy first step to support claimants with mental health problems. And substantively, claimants should not have to worry about receiving a sanction for being a few minutes late to DWP appointments.
Many of those we spoke to had initially been confused about whether they were even entitled to UC. Claimants need to have clear information about their entitlement, and to be reassured that it is a benefit for those with health issues, and for people who are able or unable to work. And they should be given information about how to challenge conditions placed on their receipt of UC if they feel those conditions will be too hard for them to meet. The DWP also needs to collect, monitor and report on reasonable adjustments.
The social security system must be there for all of us when we need it. As more people need support with their mental health, it becomes ever more important to make sure the government is getting this right.
*Names have been changed.
We are grateful to the Fusion21 Foundation for funding this research. The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily of the Fusion21 Foundation.