The link between poverty and poor mental health should not be ignored

By Bernadette Meaden
May 10, 2017

The death of a young man recently illustrated how the lack of a relatively small sum of money can escalate and contribute to a tragedy.

Jerome Rogers, 20, worked as a self-employed motorcycle courier delivering blood to London hospitals.  He was carrying out vital, perhaps on occasion life-saving work, but his earnings were extremely low. When he couldn’t pay two £65 parking fines, his debt ballooned to £1,019 in a matter of months, due to penalties and bailiff fees. He began searching online for loans, but when his bike, valued at £400, was clamped by the bailiff he took his own life. The coroner at his inquest recorded a verdict of suicide.

In Mental Health Awareness Week a lot of the publicity aimed at raising awareness and reducing stigma has been along the lines of, ‘it can happen to anybody’. Celebrities, sportspeople and even members of the royal family have been cited as examples to show that nobody, however glamorous and privileged their life may appear, is immune from experiencing a mental health problem.

Of course this is true, and if such publicity encourages people in less high-profile walks of life to seek help, then it will be worthwhile. But does this approach risk masking the strong link between poverty and poor mental health, and make it less likely that poverty’s negative impact on mental health will be recognised and addressed? We know that the UK has stark health inequalities, with richer people enjoying almost twenty years more healthy life than poorer people, yet economic factors  often seem to be ignored when mental health is under discussion.

The truth is that whilst nobody is immune from mental illness, people living in poverty are at a much higher risk. Twenty four per cent of adults in the poorest fifth of the population develop a mental illness, compared with fourteen per cent of people on an average income. There is very often a strong relationship between a person’s income and their mental health. Money can't buy happiness it's true, but the gut-wrenching anxiety of not being able to feed your children, or buy them shoes or keep them warm, cannot fail to take a heavy toll on mental wellbeing.

Turn2Us, a charity which helps people obtain access to grants and benefits, says, “The more debts a person has, the more likely they are to develop a mental health problem. A quarter of people with common mental health problems are in financial difficulty.” Eighteen per cent of people who approached the charity for help said that they experienced mental health problems as a consequence of their financial situation.

And of course it’s not just adults who suffer. The Children’s Society says that, “There is a wide variety of evidence to show that children who live in poverty are exposed to a range of risks that can have a serious impact on their mental health.” In its new report, Poor Mental Health the Society cites research which shows that “reductions in family income, including benefit cuts, are likely to have wide-ranging negative effects on children’s mental health”. Pointing out that there is a projected rise in child poverty over the next five years, it says “It is a real concern that cuts to support for low income families have the potential to entrench the impact of poverty on the mental health and well-being of children across the UK.”

Whoever forms the next government, if they sincerely wish to improve the mental health of the nation they need to reduce poverty, and particularly child poverty.

The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘Surviving or Thriving?’ The fact is, people who are barely surviving financially, and can only see their prospects getting worse no matter how hard they work, are highly unlikely to thrive.

If you are in distress and need to talk to somebody, you can call the Samaritans free, at any time on 116 123.

Ekklesia's General Election theme for 2017 is #Vote4CommonGood. This will be explored by writers and researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as analysis of the different party manifestos in relation to the principles and policies we have advocated for many years. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/vote4commongoodintro

------------

© 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 

Ekklesia's General Election theme for 2017 is #Vote4CommonGood. This will be explored by writers and researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as analysis of the different party manifestos in relation to the principles and policies we have advocated for many years. See:  http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/vote4commongoodintro

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.