The nine-year observational study has suggested the roll-out of Universal Credit across England, Wales, and Scotland is linked to an increase in mental health problems among unemployed recipients within all social groups.
Specifically, the analysis suggests that the introduction of Universal Credit was associated with a 6.6 per cent increase in cases of psychological distress among recipients, equivalent to an estimated 63,674 unemployed recipients having clinically significant levels of psychological distress between April 2013 and December 2018, of whom over a third may have become clinically depressed.
“Our study supports growing calls for Universal Credit to be fundamentally modified to reduce these mental health harms”, said Dr Sophie Wickham from the University of Liverpool, who led the research.
“So far, the government has only looked at the impact of Universal Credit on the labour market, and there are no plans to assess its effect on health and wellbeing. With a further 5.5 million recipients of existing benefits expected to claim Universal Credit over the next few years, this expanding group may exacerbate pressures on already stretched mental health and social care services.”
However, the authors caution that Universal Credit has been implemented within broader welfare changes that may have contributed to the mental health toll.
Iain Porter, policy and partnerships manager at the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation based in York, said:“Our social security system should provide a public service people can turn to when they hit hard times. There is nothing compassionate or just about the roll out of Universal Credit increasing levels of anxiety and stress among low-income families. Delays in payments, the complexity of the claiming process and the unpredictability of financial support is forcing too many people into a corner leaving them facing impossible situations.
“We know from speaking to claimants that without urgent reforms to Universal Credit there is a real risk of confidence and trust in the system being irreversibly damaged. The Government must work alongside claimants to redesign the system so it treats everyone with dignity and respect. Ministers can begin by ending the minimum five-week wait for their first payment which is trapping people into poverty and debt.”