The government's controversial "fit for work" assessment, to determine whether people are eligible for disability benefits, has been linked to a rise in the number of suicides as well as an increase in the prescription of anti-depressants, according to research.

Experts from Oxford and Liverpool universities assessed the consequences of the Department of Work and Pensions' (DWP) work capability assessment (WCA) scheme and found "unintended serious consequences" for people who are taken off benefits. There is a danger these "adverse effects outweigh any benefits that may or may not arise" from declaring people fit to work, they said.

The report, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found there was an increase of 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of mental ill health and 725,000 more prescriptions for anti-depressants across England in areas where people were subjected to WCAs between 2010 and 2013.

The DWP, however, said the data is "wholly misleading". Other experts said the research goes "beyond merely establishing a correlation" but stops short of finding a direct link between WCAs and suicide.

The researchers say between 2010 and 2013, more than one million people were assessed using WCAs, many of whom were more likely to live in depraved areas. After adjusting for other baseline area characteristics such as economic trends and long-term trends over time, the researchers estimated for every 10,000 people reassessed there were approximately an additional six suicides, 2,700 cases of reported mental health problems and 7,020 items of antidepressants prescribed.

The report used these figures to estimate the 590 suicides and rise in mental health problems and anti-depressant prescriptions across England as a whole between 2010 and 2013.

"The programme of reassessing people on disability benefits using the work capability assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing," the report states.

"This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits.

"Although the explicit aim of welfare reform in the UK is to reduce 'dependency,' it is likely that targeting the people living in the most vulnerable conditions with policies that are harmful to health, will further marginalise already excluded groups, reducing, rather than increasing, their independence."

However, others experts concluded the data does not give a definitive answer. Professor Thom Baguley, associate dean for research at Nottingham Trent University, said: "The study provides evidence that the specific application of this policy (the way reassessment of cases was conducted) increased the suicide rate and outcomes associated with adverse mental health in those people affected.

"The evidence goes beyond merely establishing a correlation but falls short of establishing a causal link. The researchers have been careful to control for important confounding variables and conducted a range of alternative analyses to eliminate other explanations. However, it is extremely difficult to rule out all other explanations -- especially when dealing with aggregated data (averages at the local authority level)."

The charities Mind, the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Rethink Mental Illness said: "We know many people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism want to work, but face huge barriers because of the impact of their condition and the stigma and discrimination they often face from employers. But for those who can't work, the work capability assessment is causing acute anxiety and stress, and people are being wrongly found fit for work."

A DWP spokesperson said: "This report is wholly misleading, and the authors themselves caution that no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. In addition, it is concerning that they provide no evidence that the people with mental health problems highlighted in the report even underwent a work capability assessment."