When we say this is a public mental health emergency, we are not exaggerating, writes Karen Hall, Head of Northern Ireland at Mental Health Foundation.
In the past 15 years, we have lived through recession, austerity, Brexit, and a global pandemic. For four of the last six years, we have been without a functioning Executive. One strategy that did make it through in the last mandate was the Mental Health Strategy. With cross-party support and a costed implementation plan, hopes were high and still are. But the strategy is only one part of the equation if we want to see people and communities thrive.
If we do not tackle the root causes of poor mental health and reduce socioeconomic inequalities, we will continue to see mental health problems increasing and people and communities experiencing distress.
So, the next crisis is upon us, the cost-of-living crisis. But for many, it is not new. Before the term was coined, many people could not heat their homes or feed their families. We are not all in this together because how we experience this ‘crisis’ as individuals and communities differ depending on our circumstances.
So, what do we know?
Polling* we conducted in November 2022 with LucidTalk revealed that 44 per cent of people felt anxious while almost one in 10 (9 per cent) felt hopeless about their financial situation. This has contributed to people showing signs of behavioural changes that are detrimental to mental health, including having poorer quality sleep, exercising less, and seeing friends and family less often.
We know that poverty and financial strain are linked to poor mental health and an increased likelihood of experiencing mental health problems. We know that mental health problems can be prevented if we tackle the root causes of poor mental health, including poverty, inequality, poor quality and insecure housing.
When we published our paper, Mental Health and the cost-of-living: Another pandemic in the making?, we made recommendations for actions governments can take to try to prevent this crisis from having a further detrimental impact on public mental health. Fundamentally, financial support schemes must prevent people from experiencing poverty and financial strain. But we also need to see government assess the mental health impact of the decisions they make and provide sustainable funding to the community organisations that provide support. For those working with people who are experiencing financial strain, we need them to understand the mental health impact and provide a compassionate response.
We have an ethical imperative to do all we can to stop people from experiencing mental distress, and there is an economic case too. Our research with the London School of Economics and Political Science found that, before the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health problems cost the economy in Northern Ireland £3.4 billion per year. If the cost-of-living crisis causes more people to develop poor mental health, this economic cost will increase.
As we have seen during previous crises and world events, ignoring the impact on mental health damages people and communities and can impact future generations. We must act now.