Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain

Nine-year observational study suggests roll out of Universal Credit across England, Wales, and Scotland linked to increase in mental health problems among unemployed recipients within all social groups

The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009–2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

Specifically, the analysis suggests that the introduction of Universal Credit was associated with a 6.6% increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among recipients, equivalent to an estimated 63,674 unemployed recipients experiencing clinically significant levels of psychological distress between April 2013 and December 2018, of whom over a third (21,760) may have become clinically depressed.

Universal Credit was launched in April 2013 in a bid to simplify the benefits system and help more people into work, but has been the subject of controversy from the start, with reports of long delays in payments and increased use of sanctions. Replacing six existing benefits, this major welfare reform has been rolled out in stages, and by the end of 2018, 1.6 million people were receiving Universal Credit in England, Scotland and Wales, including 73% of unemployed people (990,000).

“Our study supports growing calls for Universal Credit to be fundamentally modified to reduce these mental health harms”, says Dr Sophie Wickham from the University of Liverpool, UK, 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.”

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Posted by Matt Pearce