Next Sunday, 10th October is World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme is ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’.
Set by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), this particular theme is one which is very close to my heart. I’ve worked most of my working life supporting people from some of our most deprived communities and seen first-hand the impact that poverty, deprivation and social exclusion can have on mental health. This was one of the key drivers that motivated me to train as a therapist and set up our social enterprise, Mind Aloud CIC.
Poverty in the UK
The world is becoming increasingly unequal, with the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor is becoming wider and wider. Pre-pandemic, a whopping 14 million people in the UK (1 in 5 of us) were living in poverty (Joseph Rowntree Foundation Poverty Report 2020/21) and 1.5 million of us were actually destitute, unable to afford even the basics to survive. Post-pandemic, this is getting worse, with a further 700,000 people being driven into poverty, with a sharp increase in Universal Credit (UC) claims and a record 2.5 million food parcels given to people in crisis (Trussell Trust 2021). According to Child Poverty Action Group, 1 in 4 children live in poverty, and this rises to 1 in 2 children from black and minority ethnic groups (End Child Poverty 2020), setting them up for a potential lifetime of poor mental health.The reduction in Universal Credit is only set to make things worse.
The Impact of Poverty on Mental Health
The impact of poverty on mental health is dire and this is backed by research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Trust (Psychological Perspectives on Poverty (2015) which finds:
The blame game: society (we) perpetuate this pernicious lie, that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. People in poverty are treated with contempt due to the erroneous belief that poverty happens to people as a result of personal failings and bad choices rather than the systemic failings of the structures into which they are born (family, societal, economic).
The consequences: this macro-level gaslighting is so pervasive that we believe it. This affects how people in poverty see themselves, significantly impacting their self-esteem, resulting in lower levels of self-confidence. This has negative consequences on their educational and professional attainment and thus perpetuates poverty.
Mental ill-health: alongside stress, anxiety and depression, poverty increases the risk of more serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and addiction. Poverty can cause mental ill-health as a result of trying to cope in extremely stressful situations. Mental ill-health can also cause poverty (e.g. affecting an individual’s ability to get and maintain a job).
Disease: as well as mental ill-health, poverty during childhood is also associated with poor physical health, including heart disease and cancer.
Behaviour: poverty during childhood results in maladaptive coping mechanisms. The development of short-term coping strategies for stressful situations can lead to other issues including poor language development, attention deficit, poor planning and decision-making skills and a struggle to form healthy relationships.
Relationships: people in poverty are more at risk of experiencing difficulty in their relationships, resulting in unhealthy relationships or social isolation.
Immediacy issues: poverty induces a ‘scarcity mindset’ which means people raised in poverty tend to focus on the immediate issues at the expense of long-term planning, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Mental Health in an Unequal World
This theme highlights that, whilst the need for mental health services is ever-increasing, access to mental health services remains unequal, with between 75% to 95% of people with mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries unable to access mental health services at all, and access in high income countries such as ours is becoming ever more difficult, with lack of investment in mental health contributing to the widening treatment gap. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ grows ever wider and there is continuing unmet need in the care of people experiencing mental ill-health whilst they continue to face stigma and discrimination. 2020 highlighted a lack of basic human respect for some of the most discriminated against people in our society and brought into stark relief the inequalities and stigma experienced by groups and individuals that are marginalised or ‘othered’ by our wider society…...us.
It remains a mystery to me why there is still stigma attached to mental distress. Let’s face it, we all live here together on a terrifying circus of a planet and it’s really hard to be a person in the world at times. This is borne out by the numbers of people experiencing mental distress - at least a quarter of us will experience mental ill-health at some point in our lives and 1 in 6 of us is currently experiencing stress, anxiety or depression right now, today. The stigmatisation of mental distress can have a lasting negative impact on how we are viewed by others, on our relationships, on our work and educational opportunities. It can affect our future job and earnings prospects. Given the potential risks to all of us, we all have a role, responsibility and vested interest in de-stigmatising mental ill-health and finding better ways to support those experiencing mental distress in the here and now. This becomes even more urgent when we consider how any of us may be psychologically affected by the ongoing potential fall-out of the pandemic and the wider impact of global issues on society and the economy, with the fear of impending insecurity and loss being very real and ever-present.
Be part of the solution, be an advocate.
This World Mental Health Day 2021 campaign ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’ provides us with an opportunity for all of us to show our support and act together to help ensure we can all enjoy good mental health both now and throughout our lives. Here are a few ways you can become an advocate or supporter:
Check in with your family, friends and loved ones – ask if they’re ok and listen without judgement and with an open heart and mind
Buy your Mental Health Green Ribbon and wear it to show your support and let others know you’re a trusted ally of people struggling with their mental health
Host a Big Mental Health Get Together – you can hold a coffee morning, set up a cake stall outside your house or hold an online event to raise vital funds for mental health charities
Train to become a Mental Health First Aider
If you run a business, become a partner to Mental Health UK
Volunteer for the Samaritans or other mental health support charity
Support a mental health charity when you shop via Amazon Smile
Sign up to watch and share Forward Together on 10th October 2021 World Mental Health Day.
Join OPEN, the Mental Health Foundation’s online community to help inform the conversation
This World Mental Health Day on 10th October 2021, don’t just do nothing, do something, make a difference, even if just in a small way such as buying your Mental Health Green Ribbon, all proceeds go towards supporting someone struggling with their mental health and we all benefit when we’re all working towards a kinder world.