Cost-of-living crisis intensifies mental health problems and poverty

Image credit: Pxhere CCO Public domain

The cost-of-living crisis, with huge rises in the prices of fuel and food, is already causing deep wounds among the poorest in society.

The debt charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), in its annual client report On the Edge, says the number of people considering or attempting suicide has risen, with 36 per cent of people surveyed saying they had considered it as a way of getting out of debt.

While the causes of suicide are complex and various, Gareth McNab, the charity’s external affairs director, said there was a noticeable increase in mental health issues reported about the time that the government withdrew the £20 universal credit uplift, as the country came out of lockdowns last autumn.

He told a Religion Media Centre online briefing that this was the experience of people on the lowest incomes, with problem debt, who had spent sometimes years trying to deal with problems on their own, before talking to anyone to find a resolution.

People had told him they felt guilty and fearful in a society where it was shameful to talk about money. This bred isolation which in turn led to more mental health issues.

The charity’s annual report outlined the results of a survey of 750 people who had benefited from its advice over the past year, from a client base of 13,452. It analysed why people waited so long for advice, what caused their problem in the first place and the impact of debt and mental health issues on families, relationships and practical living.

The average debt CAP dealt with was £17,306, with the highest found in East Anglia, followed by London and Northern Ireland. Yet the report said the average income of a client was £13,404 after housing costs. The largest areas of debt were council tax and utility bills.

The report found 67 per cent of those surveyed had rationed either food or fuel on a weekly basis, yet most of the clients were working, relying on benefits to supplement their low incomes.

Paul Morrison, policy adviser at the Joint Public Issues Team representing several churches, told the briefing that the social security system was failing to provide the support that people needed “to live with a certain amount of dignity”. His research found half of Universal Credit clients were rationing food and one in six were visiting food banks.

This cost-of-living crisis could not be seen in isolation. It follows 10 years of austerity and two years of pandemic, both of which had disproportionate effects on the poorest in society, he said. “If the system is meant to protect people from destitution, it’s not working,” he added.

Tom Pollard, consultant on food poverty and a mental health worker, had researched food banks in London and Kent for a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. He found people were so consumed with making every penny go as far as possible that it was hard for them to take steps towards a better future when they could only imagine survival.

Food banks were now so crucial that they formed a “shadow safety net”, he said, hiding the full impact of increasing poverty.

The government has announced flat rate council tax and energy rebates, but Mr McNab said these failed to take account of where families with a number of children, or people with disabilities staying at home all day, had higher energy bills.

He and the others on the RMC panel agreed that continuing pressure was needed to persuade the government to deliver more help in time for another fuel increase in October. Mr Morrison said a review was under way to identify clearly any needs not being met.

Meanwhile, Mr McNab said, everyone could do something, even just talking to someone going through the stress of debt and lack of income. He said Christians Against Poverty befriended people seeking help, offered to bring them into community activity and to pray with them, an offer that can be rejected.

He said debt was never just a numbers problem. Loneliness and social isolation could be the beginning of the “slippery slope into deeper and darker mental health impacts”, and the charity could help to offer a way out of it.

For Mr Pollard, the government needed to understand that dealing with mental health was not just an issue for the NHS.

“If you’re only giving people enough money to scrape by, people are going to lack resilience when it comes to dealing with difficult situations like the pandemic or the cost-of-living crisis. The government has to get serious. If they do care about mental health, they need to be looking at how the whole of government impacts on that.”

Watch the entire briefing from 21st June 2022 with full comment:


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