DLA, mental health, and the legacy of the Troubles

The debate surrounding welfare reform in Northern Ireland has gradually seen opinion divide into one of two camps; those who decry any reform of the system as “ruthless Tory cuts”, and those on the other hand who see the swelling ranks of those claiming DLA as evidence that the feckless and workshy are gaining a free ride.

The truth is, as ever, somewhat more complex. There is no doubt that the numbers in Northern Ireland claiming DLA are vastly higher than the numbers claiming for equivalent benefits in Great Britain, but the increase is not due to an explosion in working-age people claiming the benefit. The increase in DLA claimants in Northern Ireland since 2001 is mostly attributable to people over 65.


One of the reasons for this dramatic shift is structural. Only people under 65 can submit a new claim for DLA, but if granted it can be claimed past the claimant’s 65th birthday. Over 65s can claim Attendance Allowance, which is similar to DLA. AA claimants fell from 63,605 (29% of the over 65 population) in 1999 to 53,290 (20%) in 2014. If you include Attendance Allowance claimants in the totals, then the chart looks like this.

NI DLA & AA By Age

When the AA figures are included, the graph becomes a lot flatter. In fact, for the last ten years, there has been no meaningful increase in DLA claimants in any age cohort from the age of 35. The “dramatic” shift in DLA numbers in Northern Ireland can be mostly attributed to the deaths of those claiming Attendance Allowance, and their replacement by people who are still entitled to claim DLA past the age of 65.

However, this doesn’t explain why the figures in Northern Ireland are so much higher in Great Britain. The DLA claimant per population graph for Great Britain is below. Note the different scale on the y-axis.


It is striking that the numbers rolling from the “50-64” years cohort to the “65+” cohort from 2005 onwards are proportionally higher in Northern Ireland than is the case in Great Britain. This suggests that there are more DLA claimants in the population born between 1941 and 1955 than the population born in the years subsequently; the equivalent drop is much less obvious in Britain.

Proportionally, Northern Ireland has a far higher proportion of DLA claimants claiming due to their mental health than is the case in Great Britain. In 2010, mental health issues were the disabling condition in 23% of all DLA claims; the equivalent figure in Great Britain is 12%.

Across a range of metrics, mental health in Northern Ireland is much worse than in Britain. A 2011 University of Ulster study found that Northern Ireland had the world’s highest rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with higher rates than Israel and Lebanon. A report in The Detail found that Northern Ireland consumes more than two and a half times as many antidepressants as similarly wealthy levels in England. Most shocking of all is the suicide rate in Northern Ireland, which is 63% higher than the rate in Britain. Between 1995 and 2013, 4,018 people took their own lives in Northern Ireland, higher than the number of deaths in the Troubles.

It is apparent that a significant reason for the large number of DLA claimants is due to mental health issues associated with the Troubles. This can also be seen in the higher numbers of claimants in areas that were heavily affected by the conflict. The following chart shows the relationship between DLA claimants and the numbers of deaths in the Troubles, which I have had to use as a proxy for the extent to which an area was affected by the conflict.

NI DLA & Troubles Deaths

Whilst it is necessarily a simplification of what is a layered and complex story, and poverty and social deprivation is also a significant factor, it would appear from the data that a large reason behind the high numbers of DLA claimants in Northern Ireland is a legacy of the mental health issues caused by the Troubles, and not due to a growing army of workshy people of working age. There very well may be people currently claiming the benefit who may be able to work, but it is important to remember that for all the talk of “scroungers”, there are a large number of people who are in poor mental health as a result of the troubles, and that dealing sensitively with their healthcare needs is an issue that may take generations to fix.

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  • leanbh inchinn Ceilt

    Agreed. The number of Ex RUC, UDR officers and their families who suffer from PTSD and suffered the daily threat of imminent death by shooting/explosion for years is huge. They are largely, if not completely, overlooked.

  • Mirrorballman

    I Know 7 people aged under 30 who are receiving DLA for mental health reasons (including my own brother). 6 of them are regular drug abusers and the 7th has alcohol issues.

    While I am not for arguing that most people in receipt of this are not deserving of it I know people who are not.

    Since my brother was awarded DLA back in late 2013 I have witnessed a steady deterioration in him. His drug abuse has increased greatly and all because he can now afford to spend a lot more money on drugs thanks to his DLA.

    I have no doubt that many of the suicides we have seen in our young people in recent years can be attributed to 2 factors. Drugs and DLA. Every single person in receipt of DLA for mental health should be subjected to regular drug testing. A failure leads to a reassessment of the benefit. I know that may sound harsh but I think we have been paying too many people to take drugs and kill themselves for far too long….

  • Reader

    So NI figures are twice GB figures across the board and mental health issues are at 23% of the total here instead of 12% there.
    That still leaves nearly twice as many (compared with GB) claiming due to physical disability even in the younger age groups that definitely weren’t injured in the troubles.
    Any ideas why? And what about the old dears and old crocks hanging around in God’s waiting room (North Down) – why aren’t they claiming? Sometimes when I walk down Bangor Main Street it looks like every second person is limping.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    They are completely overlooked.

  • salmonofdata

    That’s a reasonable point, and I don’t know. It would help if there was data on claimants split by disabling factor, but I have not come across any for Northern Ireland.

  • Cosmo

    As there may be some NI data-knowledgeable readers looking at this I would appreciate an answer ….

    Are NI’s FSME – i.e.; Free School Meals for school children numbers/data calculated on the ACTUAL Claimants (and eaters) of Free School Meals? OR are they calculated theoretically on children whose parents are ELIGIBLE for free schools meals on the basis of their tax receipts etc. (and the kids may not even claim/eat.)?
    Or are they compiled in another way entirely.

    (I wonder if there’s an overlap anyway in the FSME/DLA patterns.)

  • Thomas Girvan

    Looking at the stats it seems that there is an elephant in the room!

  • Jay

    Do you include alcohol as a drug? I’ve spent the weekend clearing out a great aunts and uncles house. They both drank themselves to death within a year of each other. The government paid for their carryouts everyday.

  • salmonofdata

    Although the variance between the GB and NI numbers do vary significantly by age. The numbers claiming DLA under 35 are 44% higher per head of population in Northern Ireland, but in the 50-64 group it is 107% higher, more than double. The DLA claimant rate in NI amongst the over 65s is 2.37 higher than the rate in Great Britain.

    The fact that the variance between GB and NI declines for younger age groups strongly suggests that the Troubles was a strong driver for the difference, but that it’s not the only driver and there are likely to be other causes.

  • Jay

    There is rarely a day suicide doesn’t cross my mind. There are nights the thought of it is the only thing that can get me to sleep. I went to the doctors about 3 weeks ago and was told to take some prescription. I tried to tell the GP part of the problem was my previous drug habit many yearsago and I did not want any more chemicals floating around my body/mind. I was given the Samaritans phone number and was told by the GP she would be in contact in a couple of days with counselling contacts. About 5 days later I got a phone call from the surgery telling me my prescription was ready. Needless to say it is still sitting there. It amazes how people can get DLA when I can’t even get to see a counsellor. Only I am self employed and can take the really down days to myself (mostly spent in bed) I would not be able to hold down regular employment. I keep myself as busy as possible but on those certain days it can be extremely bleak. Would an extra couple of hundred pound a month do me any good? Not at all! Instead of handing out thousands of pounds to claimants the money should be spent on treatment/counsellors. I very rarely agree with Mike Nesbitt but his Maze mental health centre would get my thumbs up!

  • Though from the data by Assembly area I don’t think the majority of ex-service personnel are living in those areas with high number of claimants. In fact, it would be safe to say they are not.

  • Framer

    Little wonder DLA is known as Drinkers Liquor Allowance in the alcoholic fraternity – with the mobility component used to ferry in beer and wine by taxi.
    I have watched an alcoholic friend killing himself with the huge amounts of DLA he receives. Most die of malnutrition. They buy little or no food but couldn’t even spend what is saved on drink. Instead colleagues gather and rob them of their surplus money.
    This craziness stems from the medical profession classifying alcoholism as a disease, the disability campaigners backing them up and the English government afraid to offend either.
    You almost think it is a plot to finish them off quicker.

  • Jay

    Its not the classifying of it as a disease or an illness that is the problem. The throwing of money is the problem. I had a bad drug habit 5-6 years ago and I was left with the decision to either stop or die. If I had been in receipt of DLA Id probably be dead today. Giving addicts money only feeds their habit. We don’t need food, we don’t need heating or electricity, we need a hit. An addicts life revolves around that and that only.

  • Theelk11

    Can anyone confirm or refute the urban myth that being an alcoholic means you are eligible for money/DLA as you need funding to ensure you dont go short and get the effects of withdrawal, a potentially lethal condition? (Maybe I just spent too much time in Derry)

  • Cue Bono

    I’m not sure if it is DLA, but there is definitely some form of financial help for alcoholics to buy drink. There is an alcoholic in the town where I live who benefits from it and in fairness to him he earns it. Every morning when I set off for work at 7am he can be seen strolling up the street with a can of beer in his hand.

  • Cue Bono

    I’ll make a wild guess here salmonofdata, but does your research show that DLA is more widely claimed in areas where Sinn Fein is especially popular? They have made an industry out of helping people to fill in the various forms correctly.

  • Old Mortality

    Have you examined the data historically. I have a vague recollection of looking at the DLA figures some years ago and noticing a sudden surge in claims in the late 90s which I thought might have been a response to the introduction of Jobseekers Allowance (and the obligation to actively seek employment).

  • Old Mortality

    Perhaps NI doctors were just inclined to be a bit tougher on under-35 claimants than with older groups, but not as tough as doctors in GB.

  • Old Mortality

    It’s a wonder how the UK didn’t suffer from a collective psychological collapse after WW2.

  • Thomas Barber

    Have ya ever wondered why people from West Belfast have the highest DLA claimants, just walk from Castle street to Twinbrook and all you’ll see the whole way up the road is Bars, Clubs and Off licences with a few shops mixed in, its the same on the Shankill and the reality is selling alcohol just like tobacco and Mc Donalds, Kentucky fried chicken, Burger Kings, which are heavily taxed by the government, brings with it the possibility that people will get addicted and suffer from the consequences of that addiction. Why should alcoholics be treated any different than people who receive DLA from the consequences of smoking or those who receive DLA because of eating related disorders.

  • Starviking

    I think there’s a difference between your area getting targetted for attack from afar and you getting targetted in your area.

  • Thomas Barber

    What about those innocent families who’s Fathers or Mothers, Brothers or Sisters were murdered by members of the same RUC and UDR, victims who are still suffering because the same RUC had no interest in investigating their loved ones murders or because the state has decided to brush under the carpet the reality that state sponsored terrorism directed at the nationalist community is a fact that is completely ignored and overlooked.

  • Old Mortality

    Well you’re not being targeted any more so just pull yourself together and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
    However, if you’ve been under fire for protracted periods and seen many comrades suffer horrible deaths, you can be forgiven for not forgetting it. But nearly all such people just got on with it, until recently at least.

  • salmonofdata

    I couldn’t find any source for DLA figures before 2001.

  • what concerns me

    you come across as a person who when in a conversation with a depressed person who say “you just need a good kick up the arse” Life is not that simple, not everyone has the same emotional responses as you. Many people overthink situations putting themselves under huge mental stress, they can no more turn their mind off than you can stop being judgemental. We have a very real lack of counsellors, hence why our suicide rate is so high. Our medical services cannot cope, and prescriptions are being handed out for a limited amount of time and then under Trust guidelines have to be reduced with no other intervention being offered. If you want a healthy nation you have to have a decent health service that has the ability to operate and where possible be proactive rather than reactive. I wonder if in a conversation with a relation of a suicide victim, would you say “if they had only just stopped feeling sorry for themselves and pulled themselves together they would still be here”??