I’m sorry, I have to ask you, but have you ever had suicidal thoughts? When? Did you act on them? What did you do? What happened? And were there other times? Each heart-wrenching answer seemed only to prompt a further question, and although they were asked with gentleness and seeming concern, the questioner was a Work Capability assessor. The aim of this deeply personal grilling was not to help, but to judge. And that matters. Hugely.
I have been with people when that have been asked about suicide before – it is a standard question the assessors ‘have to’ ask. The grilling has never been quite as persistent as it was when I accompanied Julia last week, but it is never comfortable. And the awful thing is that you hesitate to suggest they move onto another line of questioning because every awful recollection can strengthen the case for the person being declared unfit for work. Nothing exemplifies the cruelty of the assessment system more than the suicide question.
No doubt the DWP will take refuge behind the argument that talking about these things can be helpful. But this has to be done in a sympathetic and caring environment. Suicidal thoughts can often come from a sense that no-one cares. To be asked to reveal such a raw personal history, for it merely to be fed into the system, may simply serve to confirm those feelings. And what if, after all that, your case is dismissed as not serious enough to merit ESA? How could that make you feel?
Julia has already been let down so many times by a system that just doesn’t seem to care, and she is in constant fear of being judged. I was glad I was able to be there with her – welfare services don’t generally provide that form of support and people often face this questioning alone – and that she had a friend ready to talk with her when she got home. I hope that helped a bit. But this sort of questioning should not be happening. Doctors and other professionals who know the person applying for ESA should be able to provide the evidence needed (as we expect to see happen with PIP assessments when the Scottish Government eventually takes these over). This is far from the first time the horror and danger of the suicide question has been raised, but so long as nothing is done to change the system we need to keep protesting at what is happening.
If you are feeling depressed and need someone to talk to, try contacting Breathing Space, which is run by NHS Scotland