Monday 13 March 2017

Mental Health Questions Asked at Work Capability Assessments

(TW: Suicide)

Since my first Work Capability Assessment, my mental health has definitely declined. Throughout the process for claiming Employment and Support Allowance, claimants are treated as if they are faking/embellishing their disabilities. Letters from GPs, specialists, therapists etc are given little or no consideration in deciding whether someone is "fit for work", "fit for work related activity" or not fit for either.

There's a lot of pressure from filling in lengthy forms, gathering evidence (in the hope it will be considered), sending sick notes in on time, sending assessment forms in on time, being able to explain your disabilities to an assessor & hope they will not twist or completely disregard your words. This is all before a decision has been given, and already it is not surprising that someone's mental health will suffer.

A particular issue with Work Capability Assessments is how the assessor asks mental health-based questions; primarily suicide-based ones. Claimants are asked questions such as; "Have you ever tried to harm yourself or take your own life or needed to go to hospital?"¹, "do you have any intentions or plans to hurt yourself currently?"², and "what is it that stops you from acting on the thoughts that you have?"³ These questions are asked in a hostile environment; where the claimant is observed right from the moment they arrive in the car park of the assessment centre. To be asked such personal questions in that context is extremely distressing and has led to worsening of people's health conditions.

At my first Work Capability Assessment, I was asked if I have had thoughts of suicide, why I had those thoughts, whether I had attempted suicide, and what stopped me from attempting. It took a while for me to really open up about my suicidal thoughts to my own therapist, so being asked those questions so brazenly, by a stranger no less, was very distressing. I found it very hard to answer, and I burst into tears as I was made to think about my darkest times. The assessor was barely sympathetic, and was more interested in getting me to answer these questions.

Maximus has been criticised for the types of suicide-based questions they ask claimants, but their response has been that "Every healthcare professional we employ is trained to ask people with a mental health condition a series of clinical questions to assess how their condition affects their daily lives."

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said "If an individual has mental health issues or there is an indication of suicidal thoughts or intentions, this will be given careful and sensitive exploration to establish the circumstances"

According to a Freedom of Information request in 2014 (I haven't been able to find anything more recent unfortunately), WCA assessors get approximately 17 days' training if they are nurses or physiotherapists, and less than 17 days if they are doctors. I've looked through the PDFs released as part of the response to the request, & it appears that actual mental health training is only covered in just over 4 of those days for nurses, 7 days (including overviews of some mental health conditions) for physiotherapists, and just 2 days for doctors.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) have ethical frameworks for working with suicidal clients. According to this, factors such as the following determine the best way of approaching the topic of suicide and what action to take:

  • The context in which therapy is taking place
  • The relationship with the client
  • The boundaries of confidentiality agreed
  • The confidence of the practitioner to explore the meaning of suicide

In the Risk Factors section of the BACP ethical framework document, it is stated that "Practitioners need to be aware of factors that might suggest their client is in a high-risk category" (for acting on suicidal thoughts). This doesn't mean that those in statistically non-high risk categories are unlikely to carry out any plans, but gives a guideline that can determine "the dialogue that then needs to take place with the client". Sources of information on high-risk category clients can also provide vital tools that support risk assessments. 

When exploring how to word questions based around suicidal thoughts & plans, the ethical framework document says "The wording of such questions is important and needs to be treated sensitively. Much will depend upon the setting in which the therapy takes place, the age, understanding, or emotional capacity of the client, and the individual approach of the practitioner" "It is important for practitioners to think about how they might ask a client about suicide. However, best practice suggests asking clearly, openly, and empathically"

This document goes on to explain that it is also important to explore protective factors with the client, and encourage them to use those support networks etc. If the client is at high risk of attempting suicide then specialist mental health services may need to be involved. 

And this is all within a therapeutic setting. A work capability assessment is by no means a therapeutic setting, & the vital resources for dealing with suicide risk are not there; which makes approaching the topic of suicide with the claimant potentially very risky. This could quite easily lead to the worsening of suicidal thoughts and even plans. As for the discussion of protective factors, this is only very briefly touched upon in Work Capability Assessments, so is very unlikely to counteract the impact of asking a claimant (for e.g.) if they have considered suicide, and what methods they would use/have used. If risk of suicide needs to be explored, as part of someone's assessment, surely the healthcare professionals involved in the monitoring/treatment of their mental health (therapists, psychiatrists, GPs even) should be contacted? This could also determine whether a face to face assessment would be necessary, or whether it would be likely to cause a significant deterioration in the claimant's mental health. 


¹, ², ³ DNS Article - "Maximus 'admits' using brutal and dangerous suicide questions":

Article in the Independent - "DWP's fit-to-work tests 'cause permanent damage to mental health' study finds":

Freedom of Information Request:

Nurses' training documents: (see pages 6-7)

Physiotherapists' training documents: (see pages 7-9)

Doctors' training documents: (see page 8)

BACP "Working with Suicidal Clients" - Introduction: (see page 6)

BACP "Working with Suicidal Clients" - Risk factors: (see page 8)