Lord John Bird debates link between austerity and mental health in the Lords

The Big Issue founder introduced the House of Lords debate following UN Special Rapporteur Dainius Pūras’s report into mental health in the UK

Big Issue founder Lord John Bird called for the “dismantling of the mental health barrier” in a House of Lords debate yesterday, highlighting the importance of job security in the fight against mental illness.

Leading the debate, Lord Bird said it was vital that people were able to lift themselves out of “killer” poverty that holds them back in society, stressing that there is a direct relationship between mental health wellbeing and stable employment.

He said that having a good job increases the chance of a “stable mental health existence” and can give people a sense of purpose.

Lord Bird said: “if you have a good job where you can pay your own way, where you can take your family on holiday, you can take them to a museum, you can take them to the seaside and you can have a general sense of purpose in life.

“If you’re living on the edge then you’re like someone with a permanent toothache, you are stuck and it will affect your mental wellbeing and it will go out of the door.”

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The crossbench peer also praised the work of UN Special Rapporteur on Mental and Physical Health Dainius Pūras, who told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that UK austerity and inequality are fuelling the mental health crisis.

As The Big Issue pointed out last week, criticisms of post-2010 government policies have been a consistent feature of other UN reports, most notably Dr Philip Alston’s recent investigation into poverty.

Lord Bird also warned that mental health cannot be seen simply as a national health problem. He said: “We know that 16 per cent, or one in six, people in the UK will suffer some form of mental health problem, of acute anxiety or an inability to function at some point of their life. That is an incredible figure.

“We know that with the austerity cuts that have been hitting us since 2010, there is much more evidence of people suffering mental wellbeing problems and we need to address.”

Baroness Sherlock, a Labour peer, highlighted the deep divides in wealth and income inequality in Britain during the debate and pointed to a growth in zero-hours contracts that has led to widespread job insecurity and stress.

She said: “If you’ve got no idea how many hours you’re going to get each week, you don’t know if you can pay your rent or feed your kids, and if you don’t get sick pay you’re afraid to turn down work you will go to work when you’re sick or injured because you don’t have any alternative.”