Guest blog: Reducing anxiety has to mean reducing poverty

Shari McDaid Head of Policy and Evidence (Scotland and Northern Ireland)

Shari McDaid,
Head of Policy & Public Affairs (Scotland),
Mental Health Foundation

How could tackling the injustice of poverty help reduce levels of anxiety in Scotland?

It’s a good time to ask, because ‘anxiety’ is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week taking place this week.

Seven in ten adults in Scotland (70%) had felt anxious at least sometimes in the previous two weeks, with 21% anxious most or all of the time, according to polling carried out for the Mental Health Foundation by Opinium in March. These levels of anxiety were highest amongst 18 to 34-year-olds, single parents, carers, people with long-term health conditions, and those identifying as LGBTQ+.

Importantly, the cost-of-living crisis was clearly top of mind; the most commonly reported cause of anxiety was being able to afford to pay bills (33% of those who reported experiencing anxiety in the previous two weeks), while debt was cited as the cause by 24%. Those aged 35-64 years old were most anxious about finances.

Anxiety is a common emotional state characterised by feelings of unease, such as worry or fear, that can range from mild to severe. Most people feel anxious from time to time. In many cases, this can be helpful in providing motivation or keeping us safe from harm. However, when anxiety becomes excessive, it can interfere with our daily lives and lead to a mental health problem that warrants professional help. In our poll, for those who had felt anxious in the previous two weeks, more than a quarter (27%) stated it had interfered with their day-to-day life.

This new polling underscores what we already feared about the cost-of-living crisis, that it would increase levels of poor mental health.  The evidence is clear that experiencing material deprivation and financial strain increases a person’s risk of having a mental health problem such as anxiety Specifically, poverty, unemployment, and low education levels can all increase the risk of someone developing anxiety. People experiencing financial stress and being unable to afford essentials including food, heat, and mortgage/rent due to rising inflation report higher levels of anxiety.

Deprivation is about more than a lack of money. It can include lack of access to resources such as adequate housing and exposure to negative stressors such as violence, abuse and crime, or lack of public green space. A growing body of evidence suggests the relationship between deprivation and mental health is not just about absolute lack of resource for individuals.

...42% of respondents said that financial security would help prevent anxiety, and this was the highest proportion of any of the solutions offered...

How do we ensure that fewer people experience unhealthy anxiety due to financial stress? Fundamentally, the UK and Scottish Governments need to fulfil their duty under international human rights law to improve income supports for people at risk of poverty. In the Foundation’s survey for Mental Health Awareness Week, 42% of respondents said that financial security would help prevent anxiety, and this was the highest proportion of any of the solutions offered.

Current financial support schemes clearly have not been adequate to prevent financial stress and must be strengthened. We are backing the Essentials Guarantee campaign being led by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust, which calls for a level of Universal Credit that provides claimants with enough income for life’s essentials. This is at least £120 per week for a single adult and £200 per week for a couple. Also in our survey, 20% of respondents identified debt as the reason for their anxiety, underscoring the need for adequate debt relief schemes.

Frontline workers including those in Social Security Scotland, money and debt advice services and anti-poverty community organisations have regular contact with individuals who may be experiencing mental distress due to financial stress. It is important to ensure that this communication is a supportive experience for people and does not stigmatise or cause distress.

We are calling for the Scottish Government and private sector organisations to ensure all frontline workers in contact with people experiencing financial distress receive relevant training and have the ongoing support to be able to sensitively respond and signpost to support.  Ensuring that Social Security Scotland is a trauma-informed organisation would be a positive step.

We are also calling for further funding to sustain and grow grassroots organisations that are working with people experiencing poverty, recognising that these community supports are a vital opportunity to prevent poor mental health. While this year’s £15M from the Scottish Government for the Communities Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund is welcome, we are concerned that it is not enough to fund all the worthwhile community projects that could be helping people to cope with financial stress.

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