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Social Justice

Young man who died by suicide feared DWP would take disability benefits away

Josh Smith took his own life three years ago. His mother, who wrote to The Big Issue following our reporting on the disability benefits system, blames the Department for Work and Pensions and public services for failing him. This article contains details of self harm and suicide

Josh, who struggled with DWP disability benefits

Josh Smith, who took his own life when he was just 25, following years of mental health struggles. Image: Supplied

Josh Smith was so anxious about his disability benefits assessment that he told his mother Tracy he planned to take a hammer and chisel to his leg. “That’s a disability they can see,” she breaks into tears as she remembers her son’s desperate words. “They can’t see my mental health. If they can see my disability they’re more likely to give me the clear.”

Josh was just 25 when he took his own life. His final months were consumed with anxiety that his benefits would be snatched away. Tracy, who is speaking out for the first time three years after her son’s death, blames the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and public services for failing Josh when he was at his most desperate.

“Life was already a massive struggle for him,” Tracy says. “The benefits system added so much pressure. I know there’s people who work the system, but you know when someone’s really depressed and mentally ill. It doesn’t take rocket science. This is the consequence of adding pressure to people who are genuinely ill. They are pushed over the edge.”

Josh was a “caring and intelligent” young man. His death was a “massive waste”, his mother says. Image: Supplied

Tracy is one of nearly 200 people to have written to The Big Issue to share their experiences following our reporting on the failures of the DWP’s disability benefits system. Many disabled and seriously ill people claim to have been driven to “psychological trauma to the point of being suicidal” because of the distress of claiming disability benefits.

Josh was never refused benefits – but the fear that his payments could be stopped, and the trauma of having to justify his condition to assessors over and over again, contributed to the tragedy of his death. And it has left his mother, father and two siblings aching with loss. They will never hear Josh’s laugh again.

Josh was a happy child growing up in Scotland with a big group of friends. He adored his sister, who was four years younger than him, and his older brother was his best friend. Josh was caring and intelligent, with a talent for computers. But his mental health plummeted when he hit puberty. He was 13 when he told his father he planned to take his own life. 

Josh was in and out of doctors’ and psychiatrists’ care throughout his teenage years. His parents were proud and hopeful when he got a job at an IT management company at 17. But he lost the job when the company made layoffs and he started talking about ending his life again. 

Some of the doctors Josh saw were brilliant, but others were dismissive, which had a long-term impact. If doctors did not always believe him, how would he convince DWP benefits assessors that he needed help?

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Josh’s journey with the welfare system began soon after he had lost his job. “He was so anxious going out anywhere that you could see him visibly shaking,” Tracy says. “He couldn’t deal with going out.”

He applied for the employment and support allowance (ESA), a benefit granted to people with a disability or health condition which affects their capacity for work. The paperwork was his first challenge, and then he had to go to his work capability assessment. The nearest centre was 35 miles away. For someone who could barely leave the house, that was an enormity. 

Tracy took him to the assessment. “I was waiting in the reception area and he came out. I could see it had taken a massive toll on him. He was really shaken up by the whole experience, and on the way home he was so quiet and lost in his own head about it. He was traumatised.”

Josh was awarded ESA, which helped him move out and have financial independence. But benefits come up for review – the DWP reassesses people for ESA every six months to two years. It left Josh constantly anxious that his benefits would be taken away. 

Tracy had always hoped that Josh would learn to live with his mental health conditions, and that he would be more hopeful about the future. Image: Supplied

Josh had reason to worry. More than 860,000 people have challenged a DWP decision about their ESA since 2013, taking it through an initial appeals stage called a mandatory reconsideration. Nearly all (99.5%) of these people were rejected. 

But when 100,000 of them took their appeal to court, 66% saw the decision overturned in their favour. Disabled people have previously told The Big Issue the appeals process is so traumatising it has driven them to suicidal thoughts. 

When Josh’s benefits came up for review, he told his mother he planned to take a hammer and chisel to his leg. Tracy took him to his assessment again. “I looked as terrified as him because I knew there would be consequences. What would he do? Would he disable himself in some horrendous way? Would he take his own life?” 

Get help if you are struggling. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping. 

But once more, Josh had his benefits approved and with it relief for another few months – until he heard there would be changes to ESA. It is a legacy benefit, gradually being replaced by universal credit. This uncertainty terrified Josh. 

“It was really getting to him,” Tracy says. “There was constant stress of having to be reassessed and practically begging for the pittance that they give you.”

Tracy tried to reassure him but she struggled to understand the “minefield” of the benefits system. The DWP’s records show that Josh made a claim for universal credit in July 2019 with his partner and his ESA was stopped as a result when he was switched over.

Josh received the ‘limited capability for work and work-related activity’ element of universal credit, which works similarly to ESA. This means that he still had to go through the work capability assessments and have his benefits reviewed. And he still faced so much anxiety that the financial support he needed to survive could be ripped away.

“I was trying to comfort him,” Tracy says as she remembers her son’s anxiety about his financial situation and the continuing cycle of benefits assessments and potential rejection. “But we never got to that stage because then he took his life in February 2020.”

Tracy said Josh was always outspoken about issues he believed in, but he no longer has a voice. She wants to be his voice now. Image: Supplied

Tracy and her family did everything they could to support him, but this could never be enough. “I used to tell him this was just a blip. I had every confidence he would learn to live with this. He would have so many good times. I always believed in him because he was so brave. But I don’t think he believed in himself. It has left a massive hole in our lives.”

There was an inquest into Josh’s death. In some cases, mistakes in the benefits system have been found by a coroner to have contributed to the deaths of claimants. But Josh’s struggles with disability benefits were barely mentioned, and it goes unrecorded.

In 2020, the National Audit Office found that the DWP had investigated 69 suicides in relation to benefits claims in the previous six years. But campaigners warn the number of deaths related to failings in the benefits system is likely far higher. Josh’s death was never investigated. 

“I was just in such an awful place,” Tracy says as she remembers the inquest. “I can’t even remember the first year after we lost Josh. Everything was a blur. I think families are in the wrong frame of mind to be pushing for things to be changed with the DWP.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our sincere condolences are with Mr Smith’s family. We support millions of people with disabilities every year and our priority is that they receive a supportive, compassionate service.

“We are improving the benefits system for disabled people, scrapping work capability assessments and focusing on what people can achieve, as set out in the Health and Disability White Paper.”

People will soon be assessed for a new health element of universal credit through personal independence payment (PIP) assessments. This is already an overwhelmed and high-pressure system, as The Big Issue has previously reported, and it could contribute to further backlog.

Now much stronger, Tracy wants to fight for change. “The whole system needs an overhaul,” she says. “They need to stop with sticking plasters. They need to stop making people who genuinely need benefits suffer. It is broken. 

“Josh doesn’t have a voice any more. I have to be his voice now. If I can change anything, if I can stop one person doing what he did, or if I can get people to listen, I need to advocate on his behalf. I need to speak out.” 

Get help if you are struggling. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping. 

If you need extra support, the Scope helpline can offer help and advice on benefits on 0808 800 3333 or helpline@scope.org.uk. For textphone, dial 18001 then 0808 800 3333. Use Advicelocal to find free, independent advice. Turn2Us advice finder can also help you find local organisations that give advice.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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