Britain’s brutal benefits system is driving people to despair. Disabled man starved to death after DWP stopped his benefits.Frances Ryan in The Guardian.

 

“Please judge me fairly. I am a good person but overshadowed by depression. All I want in life is to live normally. That would be the answer to my prayers. Thank you to all for taking the time to read this letter, I really appreciate it. I don’t know how I’ll cope when I see you all. I hope I will be OK.”

 

Errol Graham’s handwritten note – thought to be intended for officials at his “fit for work” assessment but never sent – emerged last week.  The words weigh particularly heavy in light of the knowledge that Graham went on to die of starvation after having his disability benefits cut off.

 

It reads as a plea from beyond the grave: a man with severe mental health problems politely asking the state to treat him as a human being.

 

I thought of this as research came out linking universal credit to an increase in “psychological stress” among the unemployed people who claim it. The introduction of the government’s flagship benefit was associated with a 6.6 percentage point increase in mental health issues among universal credit recipients across the UK between 2013 and 2018 – which represents an extra 63,674 people experiencing “significant forms of mental distress”.

 

The study found “observational associations” rather than “cause and effect” – the researchers noted the spike in mental health cases could also have been influenced by the broader range of welfare changes, for example – but it does not take an expert to see a pattern. If you are forced to wait five weeks for an income, it is natural to feel anxious. If a benefit sanction means you have to take your kids to a food bank in order to provide them with a warm meal, it’s not hard to see how you would be depressed.

 

Just as poverty does not simply mean not having enough money, losing social security does not only mean being poor. It fosters a mental state: a fear in the pit of your stomach, a sense of shame that you have found yourself in this position and an aching worry you won’t get out of it. The fact that it is the government causing this anguish, instead of providing a safety net for your time of need, keeps you awake at night.

 

Britain’s benefit system causes mental distress. That is not a partisan claim at this point. It is just a fact. A study by Newcastle and Teesside universities last year found that universal credit had so profoundly affected claimants’ mental health that some had considered suicide. Tougher “fit for work” tests have been linked by the University of Liverpool to 590 additional suicides and hundreds of thousands of additional antidepressant prescriptions among disabled people. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has itself internally reviewed at least 69 suicides that could have been linked to problems with benefit claims.

 

Ministers continue to respond with “incredible secrecy” over the scandal, more concerned with saving their careers than people’s lives. Indeed, the head of universal credit took to Twitter last week to accuse critics of “scaremongering”, as if the blame lays with those discussing the system rather than those who should be ensuring that there shouldn’t be anything to be scared about.

 

Errol Graham’s letter
Errol Graham’s letter

The DWP’s excuse that people who come to the jobcentre are often already doing so “at a difficult time in their lives” does not make this any better. As Graham’s death shows, if officials are aware they are working with people with an increased likelihood of mental health problems, there is even more responsibility to oversee a system that doesn’t make them more vulnerable.

 

The universal credit study’s authors are calling for the government to conduct a robust health impact assessment of all welfare reforms, but it is its attitude that need as much investigation. The uncomfortable truth is that social security policies that hurt claimants are permitted, not as some anomaly, but precisely because it is widely believed that claiming benefits should be at least a little painful. The myth that “if it was too easy, any old scrounger would do it” has permeated our political culture in recent years and created fertile ground for an ever crueller, ever dehumanising system that is seen to be working, not when people in need are supported, but when they are not.

 

Challenging this will require going beyond lamenting the loss of material necessities such as food or shelter, by talking about the impact of welfare cuts in terms of shared personhood. After all, human beings are not machines that need to be fed twice a day and stored in a dry box. We are all people with fears, hopes, struggles and loves – and this does not cease the moment we need the state’s help.

 

“I’m afraid to put my heating on and sit with a quilt around me to keep me warm,” Graham wrote before his death. “I dread any mail coming, frightened of what it might be because I don’t have the means to pay… Most days I go to bed hungry and I feel I’m not even surviving how I should be.”

 

To build a humane social security system, Britain must not only work to provide benefit claimants with enough to live on but to start believing that their lives count. “Please judge me fairly” is a message that betrays more than it first appears.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/04/britain-benefit-system-generating-mental-distress-errol-graham

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