Relieve the pressures of poverty to improve our mental health

12th May 2021

Poverty piles constant pressure onto people, and COVID-19 has heightened that stress, with more and more of us being swept into hardship and insecurity. We need to rebuild in a way that gives all of us a chance to live healthy, fulfilling lives, says Rachel Casey.

Mental ill-health can have a wide range of causes that are likely to be a complicated combination of factors, and shaped by the social, economic and physical environments where people live.

The experience of poverty, whether that is worrying about paying the bills and putting food on the table, inadequate support through the social security system, or living in damp and mouldy homes, paying high rents, is a factor that increases the likelihood of experiencing mental health problems, and can be both the cause and the consequence of mental ill-health.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people in poverty were already far more likely to experience poor mental health. Since COVID-19, mental health has worsened across all of our society - but it has hit certain groups of us more.

In the same storm, but not in the same boat

Recent ONS data shows that around one in five (21%) of adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021, more than double when compared with before the pandemic (10%). One in three adults (35%) who reported being unable to afford an unexpected expense also experienced depressive symptoms in early 2021, compared with one in five (21%) before the pandemic. However, people more likely to be suffering include young women, disabled people, people who are financially insecure, out of work, renters, and people living in more deprived areas.

In April, the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) highlighted worsening mental health for Black and minority ethnic people during the pandemic, as they were more likely than White people to have struggled financially. People who sought help through borrowing, Universal Credit, self-employment grants or new employment, experienced a significant increase in mental distress during the pandemic too.

Social security system adding to the pressure

This is not a surprise to us and our partners with direct experience of poverty. People talk about the worry, fear, stress and stigma of the social security system. There are widespread concerns about the difficulties associated with navigating it, as well as having limited or no access to digital technology and lack of personal support, which has been exacerbated during COVID-19 due to restrictions on face-to-face support.

The Covid Realities project, which focuses on understanding how families in poverty navigate the pandemic, also exposed the high levels of stress experienced by people around whether the Government would keep the lifeline of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit. People are also extremely anxious about how a change of circumstances, such as furlough and reductions in working hours, can affect finances and people’s ability to keep their heads above water during the pandemic.

JRF’s briefing on the impact of the pandemic on disabled people highlighted the fact that disabled households and carers are facing rising costs, reduced incomes and heightened challenges in the labour market during the pandemic. This financial insecurity has also been compounded as people receiving legacy benefits have been unjustly excluded from the £20 lifeline, despite the fact most people on legacy benefits are disabled, sick or carers. The stress of not having this vital support has been described as a ‘punch in the gut’.

More people with high levels of job and housing insecurity

Increasing numbers of people are worried about whether they are going to lose their job or hours of work, and be able to keep a roof over their head. During the pandemic, workers who were already more at risk of poverty have found themselves with a higher risk of losing work. In particular, our blog earlier this year highlights that Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers were more likely to experience poverty while in work before the crisis, and were over-represented in lower-paid positions in low-paid sectors, with Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers being particularly affected by the economic effects of COVID-19.

People who rent their homes also face mounting pressures and worry about meeting housing costs throughout the pandemic, as levels of arrears have grown. Renters are more likely to be working in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. Many have been trapped in poor-quality homes, held back by high rents and unable to request changes for fear of eviction.

What the Government can do to ease the pressure

Without the immediate Government interventions at the start of pandemic, the impact on mental wellbeing could have been felt much more widely. However, it is simply not right that people who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic may not have felt the benefit of this support, and experienced worsening mental health as a result.

As we rebuild our society, we must ease the pressure on people’s mental health to ensure that everyone in our country has a decent standard of living. If we don’t, our nation’s health will continue to get worse. Now is the time to rebuild our society in a way in which people can live healthier, fulfilling lives in a country where our social security system is a strong lifeline for people in hard times, where jobs are good-quality, and housing is decent, affordable and secure.