Rates of severe anxiety and depression among unemployed people have soared by more than 50 per cent in the last four years as the impact of “harsh” austerity policies take their toll, The Independent can reveal.
The UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) said the Government’s reforms of welfare payments were to blame for the rise, as benefit cuts and sanctions “are having a toxic impact on mental health”.
New analysis of data from NHS surveys of GP patients shows that in March 2017, 15.2 per cent of unemployed people said they suffered from severe or extreme anxiety or depression.
This figure has increased steadily from 10.1 per cent in June 2013, and marks a sharper jump than rates of the conditions among the general population, which rose 20 per cent over the same period, from 3.4 per cent of people to 4.1 per cent.
“The devastating impact of the benefits cap for families with children, the freezing of benefits at a time of inflation, and the cutting of benefits for the disabled are putting claimants under terrible mental and financial strain,” said Janet Weisz, the UKCP’s chief executive.
“The constant threat of benefit sanctions only adds to the pressure.”
A four-year freeze on benefits has been in place since April 2016, despite rising inflation, which hit 2.9 per cent last month.
The austerity measure, widely recognised as a key driver behind forecasts of rising poverty to come, is expected to reduce support by £13bn by 2020, above the Government’s forecast of £9bn, according to research from the House of Commons Library.
People claiming benefits can have their payments cut or stopped entirely if they miss one job centre appointment. The minimum sanction period was increased from one week to four in October 2012.
About a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance received at least one sanction between 2010 and 2015, according to the National Audit Office, which warned last year that the Department for Work and Pensions is not doing enough to find out how sanctions affect people on benefits.
Laura Hunt, a 23-year-old from Derby who is unemployed, told The Independent she was diagnosed with anxiety earlier this year.
“When I go to the job centre, I’m in at 9 o’clock in time for my appointment, I’m given a bit of paper to sign and I’m out. They don’t talk about what I’ve been doing, how everything is going,” she said.
“My anxiety plays up, and I don’t know what’s going on. Is this normal, am I meant to question it? It just gets me a bit worked up.”
Ms Hunt, who said her appointments have recently increased to a full half-hour, said the threat of benefit sanctions made her mental health condition worse.
“If I have an off day, I’m going to get sanctioned and have all these problems with my Jobseeker’s. That brings more anxiety because I can’t afford to pay what I need to pay and I can’t afford to get food for myself. It does get quite bad.”
One of the flagship policies in the Government’s welfare reform programme is universal credit, a monthly payment system being rolled out nationally to replace Jobseeker’s Allowance and other work-related benefits.
Some 540,000 people in Britain are now claiming their benefits this way, a figure expected to rise to seven million households by 2022.
But pressure from the “unbending” universal credit system to juggle the required 35 hours a week looking for work with volunteering and other activities that would develop their chances of finding employment could often make existing mental health problems worse, said Laura-Jane Rawlings, from the charity Youth Unemployment UK.
Another charity that supports people in the benefits system, Turn2Us, said “those seeking our help regularly tells us that being unemployed impacts on their mental health”.
“They also tell us that changes to the welfare benefits system, particularly reductions in benefits and sanctions, have not only made it harder to cope financially but psychologically as well,” said a charity spokesperson.
“It can be very difficult for someone who has been unemployed for a while to find a new job, and struggling with their mental health makes it all the harder for them.”
More than 781,000 people took part in the latest GP Patient Survey, of whom around 32,500 were unemployed. Sample sizes for earlier surveys were larger.
“We as therapists are doing our best to help those affected – but the NHS is currently only resourced to provide therapy to 16.8 per cent of people with anxiety or depression. While investing in treatment is essential, we must also tackle the societal causes,” said Ms Weisz.
The news comes after the High Court ruled last month that a benefits cap imposed by the Government is causing “real misery” to the young children of single parents.
The limit on the total amount of benefit that most adults can receive, which was introduced in 2012 and reduced in 2016 left four single mothers “unable to provide basic necessities for their children”, said judge Mr Justice Collins.
Four single mothers brought the case to the court as they were left to choose between paying rent or buying food.
Labour’s shadow cabinet member for mental health Barbara Keeley said “growing job insecurity and the Government’s damaging welfare policies” were playing a role in the increase in stress and anxiety among unemployed people.
“Theresa May has claimed she wants to tackle the burning injustice of mental health but we can see that her Government’s punitive welfare regime is adding to that burning injustice,” she told The Independent.
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Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “This heartless Conservative Government needs to unfreeze benefits and stop making the most vulnerable in our society bear the brunt of austerity.
“Struggling families are being faced with devastating cuts to their incomes while prices in the shops go up. It’s little wonder many are buckling under the strain of this cruel and unforgiving system.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Our welfare reforms are restoring fairness to the system and incentivising work, and there are now record numbers of people in employment.
“We continue to spend around £90bn a year on a vital welfare safety net, and the number of JSA sanctions have fallen substantially – halving over the last year alone. Sanctions are only ever used as a last resort after people don’t do what is asked of them in return for benefits.”