New report: The Psychological Impact of Austerity

By Bernadette Meaden
March 12, 2015

"This report directly links cuts to public services with mental health problems... Psychologists are often in a position to see the effects that social and economic changes have on people. We also occupy a relatively powerful position as professionals and therefore have an ethical responsibility to speak out about these effects."

So begins ‘The Psychological Impact of Austerity’, an important Briefing Paper from Psychologists Against Austerity.

It’s now well established that austerity has hit the poor much harder than the wealthy: we have indeed, been "balancing the books on the backs of the poor". What has not been sufficiently highlighted is the psychological price people have paid, and the problems we are storing up for the future.

In this thoroughly researched but eminently readable report, the professionals identify five ‘austerity ailments’ which they say are ‘indicators of problems in society, of poisonous public policy, weakness of social cohesion, and inequalities in power and wealth.’

- These austerity ailments are:
- Humiliation and shame
- Fear and distrust
- Instability and insecurity
- Isolation and loneliness
- Being trapped and powerless

The report looks at each ailment in turn, and links it to government policies or rhetoric which have exacerbated the problem. For instance, humiliation and shame is increased by the government’s scrounger rhetoric, and loneliness and isolation are increased by cuts to social care for the elderly and disabled.

As for instability and insecurity, the nature of our much vaunted economic recovery has actually exacerbated the problem. "This period of austerity has led to poor people in work outnumbering poor people out of work for the first time. An increasingly precarious workforce finds itself moving back and forth between insecure work and insecure benefits, with sanctions underpinning an increasingly punitive system."

Despite the government’s apparent belief that any job will do, no matter how insecure or badly paid, the psychologists assert, "It is well established that job insecurity leads to poor mental health outcomes, independently of income or occupation level, and is as detrimental to mental health as unemployment." This, no doubt, would be anathema to Iain Duncan Smith or Esther McVey.

Having examined the problems being caused by short-sighted austerity policies, the psychologists go on to say, "We also know what kind of society promotes good health. Key markers are that societies are equal, participatory and cohesive. Mental health isn’t just an individual issue. To create resilience and promote wellbeing, we need to look at the entirety of the social and economic conditions in which people live."

They suggest five psychological indicators of a healthy society, which counteract the austerity ailments: Agency, (having a sense of control over your life) Security, Connection, Meaning, and Trust. These are all things we need for a healthy life, and austerity creates their antithesis.

The report does an excellent job of explaining how government decisions feed into personal and social wellbeing. Whilst being full of references to other academic research for those who are interested, it is also very clearly written and accessible to the general reader. It is a valuable and much needed contribution to the austerity debate.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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