moneyHundreds of thousands of people who claim benefits have been physically and verbally abused and face widespread discrimination, which is adversely affecting their mental health, new research has found.

A poll carried out by YouGov on behalf of the Who Benefits? coalition campaign also found that many people who need support from benefits have difficulty renting homes, opening a bank account and getting paid employment because of attitudes towards people on benefits.

The poll found that 15% of those receiving benefits said they had experienced verbal abuse because of this, while 4% reported that they had been physically abused. This amounts to nearly 800,000 people facing verbal abuse and 200,000 facing physical abuse for claiming support. The abuse comes in addition to a raft of challenges that they may already face such as illness and disability, low wages, or caring for a loved one.

Meanwhile, 16% said a landlord or letting agent had refused to let them a property and 18% said they’d been treated less favourably by a potential employer or had difficulty accessing a bank account or financial services because they were claiming benefits.  

The effects are not just material: 38% of those on benefits said they worried that the public thought negatively about them, and that their self-esteem was affected as a result. In addition, 31% said worrying about public perceptions was impacting on their mental health. Self-esteem, confidence and mental health are all key factors in helping people to get back on their feet and on with their lives.

The changes respondents would most help to reduce their need for  support from benefits were:

28% said receiving higher pay 

25% said more affordable essential items (food and utilities) 

23% said more job opportunities 

18% said more affordable housing 

12% said more help overcoming issues caused by having an illness or disability.

In light of this research, Who Benefits? is calling for a shift in the debate from shaming people supported by benefits to focusing on the reasons that they need help, whether that’s low wages, unemployment or the housing shortage.

“We need to change the way we talk about benefits,” said Katharine Sacks-Jones from the Who Benefits? campaign. “Until we do, hundreds of thousands of people will continue to face abuse and be denied essentials, whether it’s a bank account or a roof over their heads, simply because they receive some extra support to make ends meet. Our benefits system should help people when they fall on difficult times and support them to live with dignity, instead many find themselves isolated and excluded from society.

“Until we change the debate and acknowledge the real reasons that people need support – be it low pay, disability, illness, homelessness or mental health problems – decent people will continue to suffer.”