Guilty until proven innocent: the toll DWP is having on the mental health of individuals

Preeti reflects on the work she has done with her clients over the last 7 months and why the DWP must urgently review and reform it’s processes so that everyone can live safely and be treated with dignity and respect.

Since starting at Z2K, I have been really struck by the toll the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) interactions can have on peoples’ mental health, and the ambiguous policies DWP has on how to engage with people in vulnerable situations.

I joined Z2K in March 2021 as a Casework Assistant, having previously worked as a Welfare Benefits Adviser in Lewisham for approximately 4 years. In the first few months, I had already helped seven people win their Disability Benefit Tribunal appeals, I’d secured a housing Mutual Exchange for someone, and I’d helped someone obtain a Grant Award for a cooker. I feel delighted to be a part of such an amazing charity, with a friendly and supportive team.

I have also been working with Ms M* to help get her benefits reinstated. Ms M is a single mother who lives with anxiety and depression because of past traumatic life events. She is a survivor of domestic violence; she has been made homeless and she has experienced bullying and harassment at work. Ms M has been unemployed since 2010 due to her health conditions and is unable to work. Over the course of the previous five years, an array of false allegations have been made against her by DWP, which resulted in her income being taken away. This process has led to her feeling suicidal:

“I was having a really good week with my mental health; I was slowly getting back on my feet when I received a letter from the DWP saying they wanted to take away my benefit – no explanation given.”

Five years ago, the DWP stopped Ms M’s benefits. Despite providing evidence that the allegations made against her were false, it took DWP one and a half years to come to a decision. During which time, Ms M received no income and relied on friends and family for support. Eventually, all allegations were dropped and proven to be false.

Five years later, Ms M has faced further false allegations from the DWP when she was presented with a letter with factually incorrect information. DWP inefficiencies are starkly illustrated by the inclusion of an incorrect DWP contact telephone number within the letter and the text phone number provided as “000 0000 000”. Ms M has provided evidence to prove the allegations are wrong yet again – but the point is that she shouldn’t be subject to all this unnecessary stress and anxiety from the Department that are meant to be providing her with support.

The inquest into the death of Phillipa Day and others launched earlier this year, raises huge questions as to DWP’s treatment of people receiving support, especially those affected by mental illness. People affected by mental illness can be driven to suicide, sometimes this happens during the process of them being denied the income they need by the DWP, and this is why we support Rethink Mental Illness’s campaign to #StopBenefitsDeaths and get answers about DWP’s role in the deaths and serious harm of people supported by benefits.

I am currently working with another individual who was denied benefits. Ms L* had applied for disability related benefits due to mental ill health after she was forced to leave her home due to stalking, physical and mental abuse, and harassment from her neighbour. She had provided evidence from Victim Support, her GP, and her MP as well as crime numbers at the time. Unfortunately, at the time she was not aware of our services and could not challenge this decision. She was left in debt for years on end with hardly any support from her family or friends. She is now caring for her severely autistic son and is scarred from the way she was treated by DWP in relation to her mental health; at each stage, they denied she was ever ill.

More needs to be done to raise the standards for awareness of mental illness, especially amongst single disabled mothers. The DWP must stop denying individuals in vulnerable situations support on false grounds or on a whim. For the system to be a true safety net, the DWP must urgently review and reform it’s processes so that everyone can live safely and be treated with dignity and respect.

*Real client’s name hidden to protect her identity

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