A NEW campaign is aiming to recruit an army of volunteers to help thousands of people in East Durham to cope with the increasing burden of benefit cuts.
It comes after East Durham Trust chief executive Malcolm Fallow revealed fears that the changes in the benefits system, including the controversial bedroom tax, could lead to an increase in depression and even suicides.
It is hoped that the trust’s Welfare Champions project will encourage people not to suffer in silence.
Mr Fallow said: “We expect the fallout from the different welfare reforms to be far greater.”
The Welfare Champions will be offering advice and signposting people who experience difficulties to the proper channels, as well as helping them claim what they are entitled to.
The project recognises that many people will often turn to people they know in the local community rather than contact official support services.
Mr Fallow said: “There is a significant number of people in working class communities who will often turn to someone in their community before turning to established services.
“We are trying to give some of those people help and signpost them to the services.
“There is a danger that certain individuals drift into the unknown and don’t seek assistance until it’s too late.
“And too late could mean people ending up in crisis or desperate situations and in some cases in the hands of illegal money lenders.
“We have to be very wary of the fact that in times of crisis, people’s mental health can be adversely affected.
“You only have to look at Greece, where there has been a 40 per cent increase in suicides to realise where this could go.”
Figures from the National Housing Federation show 1,611 households in East Durham are being hit by bedroom tax, losing on average £728 per year.
He said there is strong evidence to suggest that the welfare reforms are linked to an increase in the number of people using other trust services, including the telephone befrienders scheme.
He added: “We are also getting more people signing up to our projects to do with mental health and depression.”
The Welfare Champions project, supported by East Durham Area Action Partnership, will complement existing services, like the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, by giving signposting information to the right agencies for help with specific issues.
Volunteers will receive full training and expenses will be reimbursed. To get involved, call (0191) 5693511.