Thursday 24 March 2016

Sickness and disability benefit and mental illness in the UK

"Mental disorders have become the most common cause of receiving benefits, with the number of claimants rising by 103% from 1995 to 1.1 million in 2014. Claimants with other conditions fell by 35%."

The findings reported by Sebastião Viola & Joanna Moncrieff [1] (open-access) provide stark evidence of both how prevalent mental illness is these days, and the financial implications of such illness to both the individual and more generally society.

Set within the context of some pretty inflammatory language being used to describe those claiming benefits (see here) and the continued saga that is austerity in the UK (see here), I would hope that the Viola/Moncrieff results might serve to further illustrate the increasing parity (of esteem) between physical illness and mental illness insofar as the burden they can both inflict. For too long now, the focus on physical health has perhaps been at the expense of mental health (see here). I'd also hope that such findings might also serve to help 'de-stigmatise' some of the circumstances leading someone to claim for such benefits.

Drawing on data "from the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] regarding numbers of claimants of all sickness and disability-related benefits in England, Scotland and Wales" (UK), researchers looked at the 'significant' causes for claims recorded. For those not familiar with the UK welfare system, some background can be found here. Taking into account how the benefits system has changed somewhat over recent years, researchers reported on various trends noted from the data including those related to long-term benefit claims (more than 5 years) and claims according to age, gender and regional distribution.

Results: the general trend in claiming sickness benefit was one of a decline between 1995 and 2014. When however, breaking down the statistics according to "causal categories of medical condition" the authors reported that 'mental disorders' were by far, the most common cause of claims awarded: "rising by 103.4% over the period examined to over a million in 2014 (from 571 600 in 1995 to 1 136 360 in 2014)." Claims based on the previous most common category - musculoskeletal disorders - dropped by about 40% over the same period. The authors note: "By 2014, almost half of claimants were claiming benefits for a mental disorder, up from 21.4% in 1995 to 46.5%."

Analysis of long-term claimants also showed a similar trend insofar as the impact of mental illness. So: "Numbers of long-term claimants for mental disorders rose by 87.4% from 346 770 in 2000 to 649 990 in 2011 and numbers with all other conditions rose by only 0.79% (from 826 910 to 833 480)." Trends by gender (sex) suggested an equalisation between males and females. The authors also noted some geographic changes in the data: "The proportion of mental disorder claims was highest in London and southern regions in 1995, and in Scotland in 2014." Interestingly too: "areas traditionally associated with industrial decline, such as Wales, the North East and the North West, did not show particularly high proportions of mental disorder claims compared with other areas."

Drilling down into the details of what constituted a 'mental illness', the authors reveal some interesting trends in relation to claims. Depression or depressive disorder is consistently shown to be the most frequent 'category of disorder' (circling around the 40% mark of total mental illness claimants for 1999 and 2014). Anxiety and related conditions is the second most frequently cited category; between them and depression capturing 65-75% of the total claims with mental disorders mentioned. The authors also make an interesting point about claims appearing under the category of 'learning disability' including "Pervasive Developmental Disorder" (PDD). Although the total number of claims increased in this category - ~87,000 in 1999 and ~125,000 in 2014 - there was only a small change registered as a percentage of the 'total mental disorder claimants' between the years. I know some people might um-and-ah about the descriptors used to code PDD and other developmental disorders (including use of the words 'mental retardation' in the same category) but those are the codings specifically used by the DWP not my own.

Viola & Moncrieff provide some important discussions about their findings and the context they are presented in. The ideas, for example, that "regions of high unemployment and economic inactivity" or "the recent economic recession" somehow correlate with claims for state benefits as a result of mental illness don't generally hold true on the basis of the presented data. I would however soften those words by pointing out that austerity may very well exert a psychiatric toll on a person if one accepts that the quite alarming suicide statistics we've seen recently (see here) are not solely down to just social factors.

"Evidence from the UK suggests a modest increase in the reported prevalence of common mental disorders since the early 1990s, but this is not large enough to account for the increase in disability claims, and may represent increasing recognition and identification of such disorders as much as their actual occurrence." With this statement, the authors tap into how stigma associated with mental health problems might be decreasing, as more people feel comfortable talking to others about their issues and how this might be reflected in the claimant figures. They also take a bit of a jab at the 'effectiveness' of pharmacotherapy used to treat/manage such mental health issues: "The increasing use of all types of drugs for mental disorders, and especially antidepressants, in England since the 1990s does not appear to have ameliorated the rising trends in disability claims for these conditions." I'll say nothing more on this point.

The final words of this rather long post are reserved for what potentially might impact on disability benefit claims in the context of mental health issues, specifically with employment in mind. The authors note that "the provision of suitable employment opportunities where health and mental health-related limitations are accommodated" might be one model to look to with further research required. I'd agree that a caring workplace should be an important part of the strategy to reduce the numbers of claimants and provide the various positive opportunities that accompany work. I am however a little cautious about any 'one-size-fits-all' approach to accomplishing this, as lessons from specific labels covered by the Viola/Moncrieff paper come to mind (see here). And on the topic of employment and autism, I might also divert your attention to a much needed piece on why we perhaps shouldn't get too excited about 'autism employment initiatives' just yet (see here)...

Finally, although not wishing to mix science and politics too much, the recent news that a certain gentleman (quiet man?) has quit his post here in Blighty because of "pressure to make cuts to disability benefits" seems to be oddly relevant to discussions today.


[1] Viola S. & Moncrieff J. Claims for sickness and disability benefits owing to mental disorders in the UK: trends from 1995 to 2014. British Journal of Psychiatry Open. 2016; 2: 18-24.

---------- Viola, S., & Moncrieff, J. (2016). Claims for sickness and disability benefits owing to mental disorders in the UK: trends from 1995 to 2014 British Journal of Psychiatry Open, 2 (1), 18-24 DOI: 10.1192/bjpo.bp.115.002246

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