Universal Credit: getting it right for mental health

Universal Credit (UC) is a benefit designed to support people out of work and those in low paid employment. But how is it affecting people with mental health problems?

The premise behind UC was to simplify the benefit system by bringing six different benefits together into one monthly payment, as well as increasing work allowances – therefore encouraging smooth transitions from benefits into work. For people living with mental health problems, this approach has potential advantages as a simplified benefit system may be easier to navigate and result in less stress and anxiety.

Increasing work incentives by allowing everyone on UC to work up to a certain number of hours and still receive financial assistance was one of the most talked about positive welfare reforms. For people with long-term mental health problems this approach could be sympathetic to the fluctuating nature of mental illness. It has the potential to allow for people to be in work and earning when they are able, but for financial assistance to be claimed during periods of ill health when work might not be possible.

However, although welfare reform was widely called for and UC goals sounded reasonable, criticism has been raised about UC’s implementation and delivery, worsening mental health outcomes for service users through its rigid payment structure and assessment methods.

For example, applications and claims are only possible to be made online, leading to what Citizens Advice is calling a 'digital divide'. It makes no allowance for people’s different digital capacity or for those that can’t afford their own individual access to the internet.

Increasingly, mental health care staff are having to deal with patients’ practical financial issues, such as filling in application forms before they can treat health problems as these issues are acting as major barriers to patient health outcomes.

Once initial registration has been completed, UC's one-size-fits-all approach fails to take into account the complexities of people’s lives. Living with an existing mental health problem only makes the stresses involved in the whole process of claiming benefits harder and more likely to exacerbate health problems. The new structure of assessment also means that sanctions will be used more widely than under previous systems, with estimates that the sanctions rate will be three times higher under UC compared to Job Seeker's Allowance.

Living in a climate of fear whereby loss of money is a constant threat hanging over your head is likely to lead to poor mental wellbeing. Increased use of sanctions will further exacerbate already challenging circumstances for some of the most vulnerable in society.

Information obtained by Mental Health Foundation Scotland suggests that there have been an increasing number of phone calls to the Department of Work and Pensions from those who identified as being at risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts as a result of the sanctions being forced on them or changes to their benefits. The impact of UC is a real public health concern.

Asides from sanctions, other financial pressures exist within the UC structure. On average, there is a full six-week waiting and assessment period before the first UC payment is made. This ‘payment in arrear’ approach is done, supposedly, to get people used to in-work payment practices.

But this approach assumes that everyone in work is paid monthly, which is not the case in many types of low paid jobs, and it risks pushing people further into poverty and debt. Many of those claiming UC fear eviction because of delayed rent payments and this stress of possible homelessness coupled with the unbending bureaucracy of the benefit system has had detrimental impacts on mental health.

Since its inception, UC has faced a catalogue of administrative errors which have led to many claims being delayed well beyond the stated six-week waiting period. This means subsequent uncertainty, stress and anxiety, as through no fault of their own, people are left even longer without financial support.

UC has the potential to revolutionise our benefit system and work alongside mental health needs, but right now it is just putting more pressure on those who can least afford to bear it.

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