Political Impacts on Mental Health

Let’s talk about mental health. I’m going to discuss what I think are some of the underlying political and economic factors that lead to mental ill health.

Some simple stats. We know that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health issue in any given year. We also know that mental health problems are responsible for the largest burden of disease in the UK, accounting for 28 per cent where cancer only accounts for 16 per cent; and we know that roughly 4.5 per cent of annual GDP is spent on dealing with mental health problems each year.

Now for the demographic facts. The largest cause of death for men aged 20-49 is suicide. Women are 75 per cent more likely than men to report depression. One in ten young people between 5-16 have a diagnosable disorder. Mental ill health falls on one in five older people over the age of 65. The key point we can ascertain from this is that the facts are seemingly endless. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with in all its facets.

The problem that I want to draw attention to is that despite using 4.5 per cent of annual GDP, equating to around £70 – £100 billion the money spent is practically all used in dealing with the fallout of mental health problems. Comparatively there is very little provision for preventative research. So this brings us to the crux of the dilemma – what are the root causes of mental ill health and how do we tackle them?

This isn’t going to be an overly statistical article, there will be no graphs, pie charts and very few numbers from here on out. So if that is what you’re after I suggest you close the tab. From here I want to look at the way economic politics has contributed to the rise in mental illness, the disproportionate effects of government reforms, and the fallout.

I work for Jon Cruddas MP in the parliamentary constituency of Dagenham and Rainham, which is spread across two London boroughs; Barking and Dagenham, one of the most deprived boroughs in London, and Havering, which has the most ageing population in London. We deal with an average of 850 cases on a weekly basis and the changes over the last three years are what have lead me to my interest in mental health. Although not always the root of mental illness, from working in Jon’s office it is apparent that social and economic inequality is having a colossal effect on people’s state of mind. I would go as far as to say that at this point three out of five cases we deal with has a mental health element rooted in social and financial circumstance.

Since the Conservative-led welfare and housing benefit reforms of 2013 there has been a consistent and significant rise in casework through the MPs office, and with it a rising tide of mental ill health. It is statistically proven that people living in poorer areas are disproportionately affected by depression and anxiety, among other disorders. A recent report published in conjunction with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Oxfam outlines that Barking and Dagenham ranked seventh overall in estimated financial loss from welfare reform up to March 2016 – equating to £540 a year lost per working age adult. However, the anticipated loss by 2020-21 arising from post-2015 welfare reforms puts Barking and Dagenham as the third worst hit district in the UK.

Looking closely at the statistics in the report it is possible to argue that former industrial areas where the local economies have struggled to rebuild after a steep decline in manufacturing, have been hit hardest by welfare reform. This is partially due to lower average incomes in these areas. The most effected household type according to the data are single person working age households – which also correlates to the person specification type that is most likely to be affected by a mental illness. This is not a coincidence, this is a perfect example of cause and effect.

The Conservatives would have the public believe that the welfare reforms are in the interests of working people, and are only hitting unemployed claimants. However, when we look in detail the reforms are to the greater detriment of those struggling the most; people in full time employment or on zero-hours contracts, sometimes trying to balance two jobs and still not covering their bills. It is people in these situations, often with a family to care for, or living alone in relative isolation that need support the most. This is when many people are at their most vulnerable, stretched by their responsibilities with desperate financial struggle at the centre. Self-confidence begins to erode from one struggle to the next, and the walls start closing in leading the individual into anxiety and depression, which in turn has a knock on effect for family members as it is likely to create a tense and fractured home life… Leading to even more destabilisation.

I’m willing to bet money that if we surveyed Richmond-Upon-Thames against Dagenham and Rainham to discover the extent of mental illness in both, the difference would be astronomical. I would argue that former industrial areas, and places with a historic English working class demographic, are more likely to be blighted with poor mental health in direct relation to their social and economic situation.

The safety nets in society are gradually being stripped away, pulled out from beneath peoples feet by a callous Tory government. Economic situations are worsening in areas that were already feeling the pinch, and the right wing media is demonising the people that seek help. I think that this is the most prevalent political cause of the gradual increase in mental illness over the last three years.

The answer? Well, there are many. A Labour government would be a good start, but while we wait we should strive to create social and economic balance. It isn’t just about establishing financial support mechanisms for people when they come up against difficult times – it is about having the social structure in place so that people don’t find themselves alone, isolated, and demonised. It is also about making sure that the government no longer legislates in favour of kettling people into desperation.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t be waiting in the wings to catch someone when they fall, we should be making sure there are no cracks in the pavement so that they don’t fall at all.

Andrew Achilleos – Chair and Campaign Organiser for Dagenham & Rainham CLP

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