The link between poverty and mental health – why we need to take action


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As with most things, it’s the poorest who suffer the most. This is no different when it comes to mental ill health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the 20% least well off people in the UK are two to three times more likely to develop mental ill health than the richest 20%.

The clear link between poverty and mental health isn’t widely discussed, but for those experiencing homelessness, 80% will have some form of mental ill health. Which is why we’re raising awareness of the link between poverty and mental health. We’ll talk about what poverty in the UK is, the link between poverty and mental health, and why poverty has such an effect on wellbeing. 

Poverty in the UK

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, poverty means "waking up every day facing insecurity, uncertainty and impossible decisions about money". People experiencing poverty struggle to pay rent, heat their home or afford basic essentials. One in every five people in the UK is living in poverty.

There has also been a rise in destitution in the UK, with more and more people unable to afford basics such as shelter, heating and clothing. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that 2.4 million people experienced destitution in the UK at some point during 2019. They expect this figure to have risen during the pandemic. For those experiencing destitution, they are unable to afford the absolute essentials they need to eat, stay warm and dry and keep clean. This simply isn’t right.

Poverty and Mental Health

Research shows that higher rates of mental health problems are associated with poverty, and poverty increases the risk of mental ill health. The social, economic and physical environments in which a person lives has a huge impact on a person’s mental health.

The Chief Medical Officer for England identified adults who have been homeless as at higher risk of developing mental health problems. Homelessness, poverty and mental health are intrinsically linked. If you face all three, you are more likely to experience reduced mental bandwidth, social stigma and barriers to support.

Mental Bandwidth.

Research has found that poverty reduces the capacity of the brain to perform daily functions. If you're worrying about finding money for your next meal, or trying to find a place to bed down for the night, you're less likely to have the "mental bandwidth" to plan to eat healthily. We’ve all experienced it, choosing to eat junk food when we feel stressed.

Poverty also affects a person's ability to comprehend the future. People see unhealthy behaviour such as smoking as a quick fix in stressful circumstances. Experiencing poverty consumes emotional resources, and effective decision making feels so much more difficult.

Social Stigma

The social stigma around both poverty and mental health has devastating effects. The stigma often becomes internalised and manifests in feelings of low self-worth. Studies have shown that people living in poverty have lower levels of confidence in their ability to succeed. Many of the people we support have avoided seeking support, saying "they aren't worth it". This creates a cycle: the worse their low self-esteem becomes, the less likely they are to reach out for support. The more their mental health worsens, the more socially isolated they become.

Barriers to support

Many of the people we support who are experiencing homelessness and poverty have histories of childhood trauma and abuse. These past experiences make it difficult to form trusting relationships and manage emotions. They are less likely to trust or access services to receive support, leading to mental ill health worsening. Additionally, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to experience social exclusion, creating another barrier to accessing mental health support.

Poverty and mental health are intrinsically linked. For those experiencing homelessness, social stigma, barriers to support and mental bandwidth prevent many from accessing support. Without support, their mental health worsens. And, while remaining in poverty, they’re at greater risk of mental ill health.

We're working hard to provide support to people experiencing homelessness and poverty in West Yorkshire. We offer practical support, but we also know the importance of emotional support, particularly for mental health. We can't do this without your help - please support us today.

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