The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world and, when the Welfare Reform and Work Bill becomes law, it will be even more unequal. Of 30 OECD countries, the UK is the fourth most unequal, and the difference in disposable income between the richest and the poorest in the UK is wider than any other country in the European Union. This becomes even starker when considering regional variations in the UK.
This is not just an economic issue: it is a psychological one. Poverty and mental health are inextricably linked. If a person can’t afford to eat, heat their home or, indeed, have a home, then their psychological well-being is going to be damaged. Similarly, if a person is struggling with mental health problems then their vulnerability to "the prevailing political and social winds" is increased. We know that people who are less well-off, socially and materially, experience worse mental health (Allen, Balfour, Bell, & Marmot, 2014; Fryers, Melzer, Jenkins, & Brugha, 2005).
Clinical psychologists usually seek solutions to such problems in the therapy room. Therapy can be important, of course, but psychologists also need to step outside the therapy room and use their knowledge and research to influence policies and make a difference at a societal level. Organisations such as Psychologists Against Austerity and conferences such as Beyond The Therapy Room have formed in recognition of this, and psychologists are starting to make their voices heard in a number of areas.
We need a more caring system
Benefits should support vulnerable people, but the current system can lead to increased distress and, in some cases, suicide. One survey found that over 80% of respondents with mental health problems feel ashamed of being on benefits because of societal attitudes. Stigma is also increased through government and media depictions of people who access benefits. Labelling people as shirkers or benefit cheats makes sanctioning seem a more acceptable policy. However, there is no evidence that sanctions are an effective strategy for increasing employment prospects. In fact, according to the charity MIND, sanctioning makes people's health worse and pushes them further from work.
Politicians could respond to links between suicide and our current welfare processes, to create a benefits system that is more caring. If we support people rather than sanction them, we begin to move to a more equal society, which is likely to lead to increased psychological well-being and better long-term mental health and employment prospects for everyone (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Plunging people into poverty through sanctions and welfare cuts can only lead to further distress.
Benefits delivery in the UK is currently subject to a parliamentary inquiry. Evidence has shown errors in the system of delivery. But there are also errors in the strategy of cutting benefits in times of huge inequalities.
Punishing the poor
We have seen poverty rates rise year on year. It will be difficult to appraise this in the future given how poverty is being redefined - yet changing the definition of poverty does not change the fact that the poorest people in the UK are struggling more than ever.
The benefits system is an important link within all areas of poverty; the people who struggle most are the people who access the benefits system. Among people who have used food banks, a significant proportion have experienced benefits sanctions, with 83% of people who have used food banks citing sanctions as a reason for food poverty. Sanctions are harming vulnerable people, and we need to stop using this punishment masquerading as part of a benefit delivery strategy. There is a need to ensure that no one is forced into food poverty due to the benefits system, and benefits sanctions should be eliminated as a way of penalising the vulnerable.
We know that social vulnerabilities and psychological well-being are inextricably linked. If we invest in the social determinants of mental health, we can start to build a society which values the emotional resources of the nation as much as the financial ones. Quite simply, a mentally healthy society will also be a more equal society. Everyone can benefit from this. This is why some psychologists, psychologically-aware professionals, the general public and people who have accessed mental health services have been walking as well as talking in the name of social justice. As more and more initiatives such as this are being planned by a growing number of people, perhaps we are seeing a new breed of psychologists who have learned from their community focused leaders of the past and are now ready to become 'action-orientated psychologists' and shrug off a reputation for sitting in ivory towers, to put psychological theory and practice to use in a socially minded way.
Fryers, T., Melzer, D., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2005). The distribution of the common mental disorders: social inequalities in Europe. Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health : CP & EMH, 1, 14. http://doi.org/10.1186/1745-0179-1-14
Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. London: Penguin.
There is a momentum growing amongst psychologists who are pressing for social inequalities to be addressed. Here is a statement produced by clinical & health psychologists, calling on policy makers to address the impact social inequalities have on mental health...