Content warning: suicide
When you’re left without work, or with low-wage or precarious work, both your financial security and your sense of worth can shatter. You struggle day to day, worried you won’t be able to make ends meet. This year, with the cost of living rising and inadequate social support, millions of people risk being pushed into poverty. While those with sustainable salaries will feel the 'year of the squeeze', un- and under-employed people claiming Universal Credit are facing a severe crisis.
Universal Credit (UC) was rolled out in 2013 as a system to replace six different benefits including jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit. It’s designed to cover housing and living costs for those who are unemployed, on low incomes and/or disabled. There are endless circumstances that leave people with no option but to claim it: perhaps they’ve suddenly lost their job, their hours have been cut, they’re bogusly self-employed or they’re disabled and/or chronically ill. For anyone without a safety net, the cruelty of the UK’s benefits system is often closer than it may seem.
According to the most recent data, 5.7 million people currently claim UC. With measly financial support and hostile bureaucracy, UC is a particular hornet’s nest for claimants’ mental health. At the beginning of this month a groundbreaking study examining the impact of benefit sanctions on claimants' health was halted when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) refused to release the relevant data. So, while this vital research is delayed, what do we already know? Adam Crampsie, chief executive of Mental Health Concern, says that people in the lowest 20% income bracket in Great Britain are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest. Research has further shown that among benefit recipients, psychological distress rose by 21% when compared to the period prior to the rollout of UC. Psychological distress can be especially present in those who’ve experienced trauma throughout their life. Mary Heffernan, a psychotherapist with The Maya Centre, explains: "The stress and worry of attending regular interviews regarding benefits approval can trigger deep trauma and recurrence of PTSD symptoms in those who have experienced abusive or violent environments."
With a standard monthly allowance of between £300 (for single claimants) and £500 (for joint claimants), and Local Housing Allowance frozen since April 2020, UC claimants are often left struggling to pay for essentials. Many can’t survive on it. In January The Guardian reported a 28% increase in GoFundMe appeals mentioning UC in the period between July 2021 and January 2022 compared to the period between July 2019 and January 2020. Many of those appeals were for help with rent and food.
Jaime and Charlie, a young couple who both claimed UC in 2020, recall their experience for Refinery29. "Food shopping became the most stressful ordeal in the world. On a weekly basis [we] would stand in the aisles of our local Tesco trying to price up the best value for money and just become so overwhelmed that [we’d] start crying and wouldn't be able to stop until we'd left. We couldn't afford to pay our energy or water bills, and we regularly had to choose which of our phones we could put credit on." As the cost of living continues to soar, how many more people will experience this suffering? How much worse will it get for those who are already unable to cope? As Crampsie notes, euphemisms like 'pinching' and 'squeezing' "don’t even begin to describe the profound hardship and impossible choices people are facing".
Heffernan explains that one of the key impacts of the cost of living crisis on people on low incomes will be moral injury. "For those who cannot provide food, medicine or heating for family members in need, there can be a traumatising moral injury. Watching family members suffer as an outcome of poverty can create depressive illness, humiliation, guilt and considerable stress. This is especially the case for those who have previously been able to support a family but for whom the deteriorating cost of living situation will create deeper poverty." These ongoing stressors can lead to multiple physical and mental health problems as well as an increase in domestic and gender-based violence.
The negative effect of UC on mental health can also be attributed to the structure of the system itself. Violent bureaucracy determines the whole process of claiming Universal Credit, your livelihood hanging by a taut thread of admin and hostility. There is so much to deal with: complex forms; frequent appointments at job centres miles from your home; texts, calls, letters, emails from the DWP containing threatening reminders; mistakes made by the DWP, which you then have to appeal against – and all while struggling to cope financially. How could it not affect your mental health?
[UC] embeds this sense of punishment which I think is really hard not to internalise. It works to frame unemployment as a personal failing and therefore something to feel great shame and embarrassment about.
If you don’t fulfil your 'claimant commitments' you may be sanctioned, which means your payments will be reduced for a set period until you manage to fulfil your commitments. That period can be anything between seven days and six months. As Heffernan points out: "The threat of having benefits withdrawn or delayed, or being forced to seek work while still unwell, is terrifying." There are many sick and disabled people who have to seek or go to work in order to receive UC due to its arduous and complex requirements: interviews, forms and 'fit' notes (an important lexical distinction from 'sick' notes); hostile attitudes from DWP assessors. If you’re late or unable to attend your appointment, you’re left spiralling in anxiety about whether they’ll take the money you need to live away from you. These never-ending threats – which you’re constantly reminded of through UC correspondence – can make you feel like a criminal even before you’ve done anything the system deems 'wrong'. As Jaime and Charlie point out: "The process of making a claim is invasive and degrading."
Martha* is in her mid 20s. She has claimed UC at two different points in her life and agrees with this sentiment. "[UC] embeds this sense of punishment which I think is really hard not to internalise. It works to frame unemployment as a personal failing and therefore something to feel great shame and embarrassment about."
Martha believes that UC infantilises its claimants, contributing to the discourse that those on a low income are somehow less than, "unintelligent, incapable and inexperienced". As a bureaucratic system, UC enforces numerous rules and regulations on its claimants, with work coaches having to follow strict guidance. "The way you are simply given an appointment with no consultation and expected to turn up [is] really upsetting and disrespectful," says Martha. "It implies that because you are unemployed, you don’t have any responsibilities or obligations." At the end of January it was announced that claimants will now be sanctioned if they don’t start searching for work outside their preferred profession after four weeks instead of three months. Agency will be removed from claimants as they are forced into jobs they hate, damaging their mental health further.
Those on UC can be left feeling worthless. Distressingly, many people stuck in these circumstances have lost their life. In 2021 a BBC report found that 82 people died after some alleged DWP activity such as termination of their benefits; 35 of those deaths were linked to the deceased's mental health vulnerabilities. Another report, from 2020, found that the DWP had investigated 69 suicides of benefits claimants since 2014/2015 – and suggested that figure was likely to be much higher. Martha, sadly, can relate. "I was led to suicidal ideation. Even though I could do my best to rationalise how unfair and wrong it was that I was being made to feel like this, despite doing all I could to find work, it’s a system that is very good at knocking all the confidence out of those who use it."
Mental illness, though a personal experience, is a structural problem. Despite the growing evidence that this punitive and bureaucratic system contributes to psychological distress in a significant number of claimants, no official review has been suggested by the government.
My conversation with Jaime and Charlie concludes on a sobering note. I ask them if they would claim UC again. "Given the choice, [we] doubt that either of us would elect to make any future claims but we seldom get a choice about these things. Would it be difficult, emotionally, for us to put forward another application in the future? Undoubtedly. Will those feelings give us the power to choose if we face desperate circumstances in the future? Unfortunately not."
*Name changed to maintain anonymity
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. Calls are free and will be answered in confidence.