In countries such as the US and UK, those in poverty are far more likely to develop mental health problems
To be poor in the UK today, following nearly a decade of austerity policies that tore the safety net to shreds, is a brutal business. The latest batch of statistics from the Social Metrics Commission revealing that of the 14.3 million people living in poverty right now, 4.5 million are trapped in deep poverty, with incomes of less than half the official breadline, shows just how deep and wide the problem has become.
Campaigners point out that two decades of anti-poverty efforts have been undermined by austerity. They are absolutely right. A huge swath of the population endures repeated, ongoing and avoidable economic hardship. But, more than this, these struggles are multidimensional, including the often crushing mental strain of dealing with poverty on a daily basis.
The intersection of poverty and mental health in countries with such extreme levels of inequality as Britain and the US is fundamental, yet is barely acknowledged by those in power as they cavalierly unleash policies such as benefit cuts and caps in the UK under austerity or slash access to food stamps in the US – all moves that worsen poverty or make it harder to escape. Policies are siloed, despite the fact that poverty affects mental health and mental ill-health can thrust people into, or exacerbate poverty. Millions of people have to live with enormous stress on a daily basis, because they do not live in a safe, habitable, affordable home or are at risk of eviction and homelessness.
This already dire situation is compounded by the fact that all too often people are unable to access mental health support and services when they need it most. In the UK, it can take months and sometimes years to get treatment, while in the US, where millions still lack affordable health insurance – not getting support when needed can make a terrible situation much worse. Some estimates suggest that only 15% of children in poverty in the US receive services when they need support, with fewer completing treatment.
Mental health difficulties are hardly unique to poorer people but in wealthy nations like Britain and America, if you are living in poverty, there is a higher likelihood of experiencing mental health problems – often with serious long-term consequences for health. In Britain, adults and children living in the bottom 20% of income groups are two to three times more likely to develop mental health difficulties than their counterparts in the highest income groups, while poorer Americans have reported having been diagnosed with depression at much higher levels than better-off counterparts
Over the past few years, I’ve talked to scores of people with experience of poverty in Britain and America about shame and stigma. From survivors of domestic abuse in South Carolina and army veterans in California, to young and disabled people in the UK, the link between poverty and mental health came up time and again. Moraene Roberts, a wheelchair user who has spent much of her adult life in poverty in London who campaigns for the views of people in poverty to be “at the heart” of policymaking, says the link “cannot be underestimated”. As a national coordinator with the global anti-poverty network ATD Fourth World, she recently has been working alongside academics at Oxford University to explore multiple aspects of poverty.“Throughout the research there was an undercurrent of [mental] health implications,” of being poor, Roberts explains.
The connection between deprivation and mental health may escape politicians, but it’s all too clear for young people. According to research published last month by Action for Children, British kids from low-income families were significantly more likely to report being worried about a lack of money and about their mental health than their better-off counterparts. This shouldn’t surprise anyone when teachers in England have been reporting growing numbers of kids arriving hungry at school and child poverty reaching more than 4 million in the UK and forecast to soar even further over the next five years. That youngsters are joining the dots politicians can’t seem to speaks volumes.
Mary O’Hara is the author of Austerity Bites