Rachel Braverman, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

How to make the benefits system more accessible for people with mental health problems

4 March 2019

When people are too ill to work, can’t find work or work doesn’t pay enough for their basic needs, the benefits system is supposed to provide a safety net. However, it can be notoriously hard to access the support you are entitled to. Long forms, hours on the phone and the threat of sanctions present challenges to anyone trying to make a claim. As our report, The benefits assault course, shows, these challenges are greater for people with mental health problems and the consequences can be dire.

Higher hurdles

We surveyed over 450 people with experience of mental health problems and claiming benefits. They told us how many symptoms of mental illness make the various tasks involved in claiming and managing benefits a great deal harder. When energy is low, concentration span reduced and memory impaired, filling in a 50-page benefit claim form, then finding a host of documents to backup a claim can be overwhelming.  People reported needing to think carefully about how to interpret and answer questions which focus on physical health in a way that was relevant to their mental health problem.

“All of the questions about how your health is affected by your illness were geared towards having a physical disability.  I found it extremely difficult to explain that although I can physically do certain tasks it is the motivation, ability to remember, communication feelings of anxiety etc that affects me.” 

Describing how mental illness affects them can force people to relive distressing events and symptoms, which can be triggering, emotionally exhausting and demoralising. Not only does this add another layer of difficulty to completing forms, it also affects people’s ability to explain and share the full extent of their symptoms when it comes to the dreaded health assessments, especially when faced with poor attitudes and lack of knowledge on the part of the assessors.

Problems continue even when benefit claims are successful. People have to comply with conditions which they may struggle to understand or remember. Tasks such as getting to appointments, going on work related training and looking for jobs can be much harder, and sometimes impossible, for people experiencing mental health problems.

Dire consequences

Faced with these barriers, people experiencing mental health problems sometimes delay making a claim, or even fail to complete a claim at all. The tortuous processes involved take a heavy toll on people’s mental health. When engaging with the benefits system, 45% of our survey respondents showed symptoms indicating severe or extreme anxiety. The effects can be serious and long-lasting.

“My mental health is bad at the best of times but it crashes during, and remains bad, for at least 4 or 5 months after any reassessment.”

If people experiencing mental health problems cannot jump through all the hoops, they risk sanctions or their claims being closed altogether. All too often, they are left with little or no income at all. People told us about struggling to buy food and fuel. Some even lost their homes.

“I made about 3 or 4 claims, all of which were rejected. Eventually I got help from Rethink Mental Health to fill out the application, and that one was successful. Between the first and 4th applications I became homeless and suicidal.”

The impact of an inaccessible benefits system ripples out beyond individual claimants. Advice services are swamped, queues lengthen at food banks and mental health practitioners use precious appointments to sort out benefit claims, instead of providing the clinical care needed to help people get well.

Bringing down the barriers

These issues affect millions of people. For example, two thirds of those claiming Employment Support Allowance, a benefit for people unable to work because of an illness or disability, have a common mental disorder.

Our report makes a number of practical recommendations including:

  • Allowing data to be shared across benefits, so claimants do not need to provide the same information and supporting evidence several times
  • Developing appropriate questions to assess mental health problems
  • Designing modular forms, so claimants can be clear which parts relate to them and which they do not need to complete
  • Training staff to recognise and understand mental health problems
  • Providing copies of assessment reports and recordings of assessment interviews, as standard.

There is a chance to ease the situation right now. The paused rollout of Universal Credit (UC), which is replacing Employment Support Allowance and five other benefits, and the proposed pilot of Managed Migration from the previous benefits to UC, offer an opportunity to make the system more accessible. We urge the government to take it.

Read the full report here to find out more.