Shari McDaid, PhD,Head of Policy & Public Affairs,Mental Health Foundation, Scotland
Thinking back to a year ago, we might have hoped that we would be closer to the end of the Cost-of-Living Crisis by October 2023. Unfortunately, interest rates and inflation remain high, especially the inflation that affects people’s day-to-day costs such as food and energy. People in Scotland are still experiencing financial stress that is likely to be leading to mental distress.
Financial strain and poverty are key drivers of poor mental health. People struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, feed their families, or cover essential bills are at higher risk of developing mental health problems including anxiety and depression.
Statistics published by the Scottish Government underscore our concerns. As of March, almost half (49%) of Scottish adults reported that their mental health is being negatively impacted by the cost-of-living situation, and 13 per cent said that their mental health is being negatively impacted to a large extent.
As ever, it is people who have the least that are shouldering the greatest burden. People who report that they are managing their household finances less well are ten times more likely to report a negative impact on their mental health to a large extent.
Of those who say they are managing their household finances well, only 3 per cent report a negative impact on their mental health to a large extent. On the other hand, almost a third (31%) of people who say they are managing their household finances less well say the cost-of-living crisis is negatively impacting their mental health to a large extent.
This huge gap in mental distress between those who are managing their finances well and those managing less well reflects what we know about financial stress – that it’s bad for people’s mental health.
There are things we can do as individuals to help us maintain good mental health but, worryingly, the increased cost-of-living is causing people to reduce these healthy behaviours.
For example, maintaining social connectedness is a known protective factor for mental health. Yet Scottish Government data confirms that people are reducing social contact. In March, 43 per cent of Scottish adults reported that the cost-of-living situation has impacted negatively on spending time with or connecting with others, and this has risen from 39 per cent in September 2022. This is concerning because connecting with others is a well-evidenced protective factor for mental health.
Again, there are large differences between those who are managing well financially and those who are not:
- In March, among those reporting managing well, 25% say that the cost-of-living situation has impacted negatively on spending time with or connecting with others.
- This compares with 46% of those who say they are getting by okay.
- A much higher proportion (65%) of those who say they are managing less well report that the cost-of-living situation has impacted negatively on spending time with or connecting with others.
The situation had not improved in May, with polling carried out by Opinium for the Foundation showing that at that time, the most common self-reported cause of anxiety for people across Scotland was being unable to pay bills. A third of adults in Scotland (33%) said this had made them feel anxious in the past two weeks. In the same poll, 24% of adults in Scotland said debt had made them feel anxious in the last two weeks.
These figures show that efforts by UK and Scottish Government to support people who are struggling financially, such as energy support schemes, expanding free school meals and doubling child payment, simply do not go far enough to address the inequalities that put people at higher risk of poor mental health.
Clearly there is an urgent need for additional targeted measures that ensure people in greatest need of support, whose mental health is most at risk, will benefit.
To truly address the disparity in mental health between rich and poor, governments must do their part in ensuring that everyone has enough income to prevent financial stress. The Scottish Government should advocate to the UK Government for an increase to Universal Credit so that it meets people’s essential needs, as recommended by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust. In the meantime, one step that would support young parents would be a Scottish Child Payment top-up. The Mental Health Foundation also supports the campaign for a Young Parent Top-up to SCP, which is being led by One Parent Families Scotland.
We also think it’s important that frontline workers know how to respond effectively to the mental health effects of financial stress and strain. This should include frontline workers in health, social care, money and debt advice services, antipoverty and other community organisations, energy companies, water and telecoms services and private financial services companies.
We are pleased to be working with the Poverty Alliance on joint research into poverty stigma and examining the role of community development organisations like the Alliance’s members in supporting mental health.
For each of us as individuals, there are things we can do to look after our own and each other’s mental health during this time. Positive, healthy relationships are always important. In times of trouble these relationships can be even more important. Bottling up worries and letting them go round and round in your head can be damaging. Talking about things with someone you trust can help relieve the pressure, and solutions could even come out of it too. You might also find that they have similar feelings and want to talk about them as well. Seeking help if you are struggling with your finances can also help.
Doing the small things that help to keep well can make a positive difference to your mood. It’s important to keep looking after your physical health. In times of stress things like our diet, sleep and getting enough exercise tend to suffer, but neglecting these areas will have an impact on your mental health. Try to find and stick to good routines for sleep, diet and exercise.
For more information about how to look after your mental health, see www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health
Those working on the frontlines supporting people in financial distress know how directly it leads to poor mental health. Working together, we have a better chance of changing society so that no one need worry about being able to afford the essentials of day-to-day living.
Notes for Scottish Government Cost-of-Living Tracker data:
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1013 adults in Scotland. Fieldwork was undertaken between 27th - 29th September 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in Scotland (aged 18+).