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‘Suicide guidance’ given to universal credit call centre staff

shawn mach

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Guidelines on how to deal with suicidal benefits claimants have been handed out by the Department for Work and Pensions to Scots workers tasked with rolling out the UK Government’s controversial welfare reforms.

As part of a six-point plan for dealing with suicidal claimants who have been denied welfare payments, call-centre staff in Glasgow have been told to wave the guidance, printed on a laminated pink card, above their head.

The guidance is meant to help staff dealing with unsuccessful applicants for Universal Credit who are threatening to self-harm or take their own life.

A manager is then meant to rush over to listen in to the call and workers – who insist they have had no formal training in the procedure – must “make some assessment on the degree of risk” by asking a series of questions.

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Advice and Rights Team, Child Poverty Action Group

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I do think that there should be caution, at the very least, in some of the reporting around this story. It’s standard practice, indeed good practice, to have clear policies and procedures on dealing with vulnerable callers for agents working on telephone helplines. This is primarily because, as anyone who has worked on a telephone helpline for the public will tell you, people do threaten to self harm or express suicidal ideation when contacting such services on a fairly regular basis unfortunately.

A well-run telephone helpline will have these policies in place both to hopefully support the caller, but also importantly, to support the call handler, as it can be tremendously stressful having to take such a call. Additionally, there may be a need to breach confidentiality policies if the risk of harm appears to be very serious and other professionals contacted. Indeed, as much is stated in one of the quotes from a call handler:

“Another worker said: “There was a man on the phone to me who said if he didn’t get money he’d kill himself. This was before we were issued with the guidelines and I wasn’t sure what to do so I could only try to calm him down.
“He hung up the phone and when I tried to call him back I couldn’t get through. It was very upsetting. I spent the rest of the day worried that he may have taken his own life.”

As to the standard of the policy itself, the training and support given to DWP call handlers, or the wider impacts of welfare reforms, I’m not sure, but having policies isn’t in and of itself a bad thing.

Edmund Shepherd
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Tenancy Income, Royal Borough of Greenwich, London

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I should think DWP gets it as often as, if not more often than, any decision-making public authority. The safeguarding guidance will almost certainly vary somewhat between organisations, but I should think that in its most basic form, it amounts to talking to the person and conducting a risk assessment to see whether this is something that can be defused by talking or whether a referral is needed to a mental health service/the police.

Unless the policy is to refer every case of threatened self-harm to a mental health service, I don’t know much more that can be done.

Interesting post, Shawn, it’s good to see how other organisations manage this issue; I’d be interested in seeing how others have dealt with these cases in the past.

Owen Stevens
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Welfare Rights Service, Greenwich Council, London

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For interest - this is the version of the guidance from 21/11/14.  Don’t know if the guidance referred to in the story is an updated version?  DWP do not keep central records of declarations of suicidal intent

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