Cara MacSherry, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Universal Credit and sanctions: the toll on people’s mental health

16 January 2024

  • We have often heard how complex the Universal Credit system is. And some symptoms of  mental health problems can make it even more challenging to navigate. 
  • Experiencing difficulties in completing tasks such as filling in forms and responding to messages can result in sanctions and deductions, further exacerbating symptoms of mental health problems such as anxiety.
  • Our Research Community has told us that being able to nominate a friend of a family member to help them manage their Universal Credit account would make a big difference, and help them avoid sanctions and potential financial hardship through lost income 
  • Yet, due to flaws in the Universal Credit system, nominating a friend or family member to help is extremely difficult. We are calling on the government to make it easier.

The Universal Credit (UC) system can be difficult for any person to navigate. This is especially true for people with mental health problems. Our report, Set up to fail, found that 57% of people felt that their mental health problems impacted their ability to apply for and manage their UC account.

For example, mental health problems can impact a person’s ability to remember login information, apply for jobs, reply to messages or attend appointments.

“UC is so complex that it’s hard to navigate. I struggle with anxiety and am terrified about making a mistake as I know the repercussions can be huge. I don’t want to end up sanctioned because I made a mistake…” Expert by experience.

The threat of sanctions

Making a mistake when applying for or managing your UC account, or failing to complete tasks such as job searches, can result in a person being sanctioned, which means losing out on an essential income.

This can create a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety, as financial hardship from sanctions, deductions or lost entitlements mean people cannot meet their essential living costs. Falling behind on payments or deeper into debt can, in turn, make it even tougher to stay well enough to manage your money or look for work.

… The constant threat of sanctions like an axe hanging over my head. –  Expert by experience.

“It’s as if they want you to jump through hoops simply for the sake of it… All of these issues have caused my anxiety to become less manageable and it has impacted other aspects of my life.” – Expert by experience

Thinking in particular about searching for jobs, after four weeks people are expected to search for any job at all, not just in their preferred sector. However, evidence for the claim ‘any job is better than no job’ is scant, and that’s especially true for people with mental health problems.

Facing insecurity but needing support

When someone is out of work, cutting their benefits can not only cause anxiety but it can also make budgeting incredibly difficult, as the amount of money they receive will fluctuate.

I never feel secure with knowing what I am getting.” Expert by experience

Being able to appoint a friend or family member to help someone manage their UC account can make all the difference – as one Research Community member who received support told us.

“Without that support, it is very likely I would not have coped nor managed my UC account. And had that been the case, it would have been catastrophic for my recovery. Possibly life threatening.” Expert by experience

People are being Set Up To Fail

Yet, unfortunately, flaws in the system means that very few people are able to access this support. To nominate someone else to help them, people have to navigate similarly difficult and unclear processes to those that they were trying to get help with in the first place.

That’s why we’re calling on the government to change the system to make it easier for people to nominate a friend or family member to help. A few small changes should mean that people who need support while applying for and managing their Universal Credit can get it – reducing the risk of sanctions and financial hardship.

If you are struggling with your finances and mental health, you can find information on support on our Get Help page. If you are facing difficulties regarding your benefits you can find information from Turn2Us and Citizens Advice.