Mel Stride criticised for mental health comments, as number of Brits with mental disabilities soars

22 March 2024, 06:15 | Updated: 22 March 2024, 06:19

Mel Stride has been criticised for his comments on mental health
Mel Stride has been criticised for his comments on mental health. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The number of people suffering from mental health-related disabilities in the UK has risen by a million in three years.

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Some 16 million people in the UK say they are disabled, with 5.4 million citing mental health as a factor - up from 4.3 million in 2020-21.

Some 2.7 million people are signed off work because of sickness, with incapacity benefits set to rise to £69 billion from £41 billion by the end of the decade. About 20,000 people per month are ruled incapable of work because of mental health problems.

The increase in people claiming serious mental health problems, and the accompanying rise in the benefits bill, has sparked fears about the impact on the economy.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride has unveiled plans to get 150,000 people signed off work with mild conditions back into a job, and said on Thursday that work was good for people's mental health.

Read more: 'If you can work...benefits shouldn't be there forever if they aren't required’, work and pensions minister tells LBC

Read more: Rishi Sunak to pledge benefits squeeze to fund election promise to scrap national insurance for good

Over half of disabled working age people say mental health problems are a factor
Over half of disabled working age people say mental health problems are a factor. Picture: Alamy

He told the Telegraph that "as a culture, we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health”

He added: "While I’m grateful for today’s much more open approach to mental health, there is a danger that this has gone too far.

“There is a real risk now that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions which then actually serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill.”

He added that it was good that attitudes to mental health had changed, which meant that people who had previously "suffered in silence" were now getting treatment.

Mel Stride
Mel Stride. Picture: Alamy

But he said things may have swung too far the other way, and people may be "convincing themselves they have some kind of serious mental health condition as opposed to the normal anxieties of life

He added: “If they go to the doctor and say ‘I’m feeling rather down and bluesy’, the doctor will give them on average about seven minutes and then, on 94 per cent of occasions, they will be signed off as not fit to carry out any work whatsoever,” he added.

Mr Stride acknowledged the topic was sensitive but said it must not become a “no go area” and was “something we need to start having an honest, grown-up debate about”.

“It is too important for people and their futures, too important for the way that welfare works and too important for the economy to just ignore, he added."

Many people are out of work due to mental health issues
Many people are out of work due to mental health issues. Picture: Alamy

Mr Stride has been criticised in some quarters for his comments.

Dr Lade Smith, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Times: "It is concerning to see nearly half of all disabled working-age adults report having a mental health impairment. Many mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can be prevented and treated if they are identified quickly.

"The government must make tackling the mental health crisis a top priority if it wants to develop and maintain a healthy and productive workforce."

She added: "People are not pretending to be sick, they really are sick. There has been a significant increase in poverty, deprivation, housing insecurity and homelessness, loneliness and isolation over the last 15 years and these issues are all associated with depression and anxiety.

"It is therefore not surprising that we have seen a dramatic rise in people struggling with mental illness.”

Labour's Liz Kendall said Mr Stride's comments showed his "ignorance".

She said: “You are not written off long-term sick because you’re ‘feeling a bit bluesy’".

Ms Kendall added: "The only thing that’s gone too far is this government. This has happened on his watch. They never take responsibility."

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About a third of people who say they have a disability cite mental health as among the causes. That rises to nearly 50% among working age people.

Meanwhile some 1.5 million people who applied for incapacity benefits between 2019 and 2023 were given the highest level of payout, and are under no obligation to seek a job. Mental health was the most common reason given.

James O'Brien discusses a report revealing that emergency mental health referrals have increased

This is much higher than the government had anticipated when the category was brought in in 2011, and Mr Stride wants to reduce the number.

Under the new rules, only those with very severe mental health conditions can be given the highest level of incapacity benefits and told they need not look for a job.

He is also going to bring in a requirement for people with milder conditions, such as anxiety, to get jobs where they can work from home.

The government is also putting an extra £2.3 billion a year into mental health services.

Mr Stride told LBC's Andrew Marr in November: "If you need support from the state because you cannot work and you have significant disabilities or long-term sick issues, we should be there as a compassionate society to do that.

"If you can work, and you basically say you’re not going to, then the taxpayer in fairness says…benefits shouldn’t be there forever if they’re not required."

A government spokesperson said: “The link between work and good mental health is clear, which is why our £2.5 billion back to work plan will give those struggling the support they need to find a job.”

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