MENTAL health campaigners have attacked new guidance to assess if claimants for sickness benefit are at risk of suicide for discriminating against women.

New advice which has been issued by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to screen who might be at risk of suicide - and therefore not able to look for work - states that men and women should be assessed differently.

The guidelines relate to the way male and female applicants are scored when going through a work capability assessment to decide their eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) - or sickness benefit.

It means, for example, a man with a diagnosis of depression and 'personal factor' such as a history of deliberate self-harm would be found to have limited capability for work-related activity (LCWRA) - resulting in more entitlement to more financial support and no requirement to attend job interviews.

However the guidance states a woman in the same circumstances should have an additional 'personal factor' involved - such as a family history of suicide or living alone.

Mental health campaigners warned although statistics show more men than women do lose their lives because of suicide, the assessment is over-simplistic and adding to a system which is already failing people with mental health problems.

Carolyn Roberts, public affairs manager at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) said the new assessment was "unfair and potentially harmful".

She said: "The Work Capability Assessment has already been heavily criticised for not being able to accurately assess mental health problems, with independent reviews recommending its assessors should have more experience in mental health.

"And while it is undoubtedly true that more men lose their lives to suicide than women, this looks like the addition of a blunt and unsophisticated method of assessment to a system that is already failing people with mental health problems. SAMH calls on the DWP to withdraw these new rules."

Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, said: "From what we understand, female applicants are less likely than men to be deemed as being a risk to themselves and, as a result, less likely to be offered the highest level of support.

"The DWP have told us that they have come to this decision because suicides are more prevalent among men than women. We are seeking further clarification from the DWP on the reasoning behind this decision, which massively oversimplifies the issues around suicidal thoughts, feelings and actions."

He added: "Although men account for around three quarters of all suicides, this doesn't tell the whole story as attempted suicides are not taken into account. There is still a huge lack of understanding within the welfare system around mental health and we want to see greater expertise on mental health and the impact it can have on somebody's ability to work."

Dr John Budd, a GP at Edinburgh Access Practice, who works with the homeless, and is chair of Lothian Deprivation Interest Group, said being wrongly assessed as capable for looking for work could have a huge impact on patients.

Budd said he had two or three patients who were "very seriously suicidal" as a result of welfare changes.

"It is individuals and families in deprived communities that are bearing the brunt of this," he said.

The DWP said the advice, which is contained in a handbook for health care professionals carrying out work capability assessments on behalf of the government, was not a set of "hard and fast rules".

A spokesman for the DWP added: "In the subject areas covered by the guidance there are some differences between men and women - for example, men have higher suicide rates than women - and the way the guidance is written is designed to take that into account."