It can be tough to stay strong in the cost of living crisis. Image: Travis Constantine
Are you looking after yourself? It’s important. This is a gentle reminder to take care of your mental health in the cost of living crisis (especially when so much feels out of your control). We know the world is rough. We’re barely through the pandemic and there’s another crisis?
If you’re struggling to get by, you are far from alone. The mental health of half (48 per cent) of people in England and Wales has been negatively affected by the cost of living crisis. That rises to nearly three quarters (73 per cent) for those with existing mental health problems.
“Poor mental health can make earning and managing money harder and worrying about money can make your mental health worse,” Kerry McLeod, head of information content at mental health charity Mind, previously told the Big Issue. “It can start to feel like a vicious cycle.”
Certain situations, like opening your mail or attending a benefits assessment, might trigger anxiety. You might not be able to afford the things you need to stay healthy – food, socialising, medication or therapy.
But over half (54 per cent) of people who have been negatively affected by the cost of living crisis and money worries haven’t accessed mental health support from a GP and two thirds (66 per cent) haven’t accessed online information resources, according to Mind. And the majority (71 per cent) haven’t accessed support through a local mental health charity.
Quick disclaimer: you are not to blame. Wellbeing tips and self-help books can only go so far, and it is understandable to feel anxious in a crisis that is for the most part out of our control. But there are steps you can take to feel happier.
“Lots of things may be out of your control,” McLeod adds. “But learning how mental health and money are connected might help if you are struggling. Try taking things one step at a time.”
Mental Health UK recently surveyed people living with severe mental illnesses and found money worries are leading many of them to relapse and have suicidal thoughts.
More than half experienced suicidal thoughts (51 per cent) and panic attacks (53 per cent) because of concerns about money. Over two in five (41 per cent) reported a relapse, while almost one in three (31 per cent) had to increase the dosage of their medication.
Brian Dow, chief executive of Mental Health UK, says: “These devastating statistics underline the catastrophic impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s mental health. In a situation that can often prove overwhelming, any opportunity to signpost people severely affected by mental illness to free specialist debt and money advice is crucial, and sometimes just one conversation can be a lifesaver.”
With the help of experts at Mind, Samaritans, Mental Health UK, Anxiety UK, the Centre for Mental Health and the Money and Pensions Service, we’ve created a guide to helping you through your mental health struggles in the cost of living crisis.
Make sure you are claiming the support you’re entitled to
If you are having money problems, you might be eligible for extra support. This could be from the government, your energy supplier, local authorities or charities. Even a small amount of support – whether that’s cash or advice – could help alleviate some of your anxiety.
You could be entitled to benefits if you are working or unemployed, sick or disabled, a parent, a young person, an older person or a veteran.
“For many of us with mental health problems it can feel like the whole benefits system isn’t designed to meet our needs,” a spokesperson for Mind says. “But it’s important to know benefits are there to support you, and you have a right to claim them if you’re struggling to manage or just need that bit extra.”
Even though so many of us struggle with money and poor mental health, they can often make us feel alone. Laura Peters, head of mental health and money advice at Mental Health UK, says: “People often tell us they feel embarrassed or ashamed of their situation, and avoid social situations by staying at home and not speaking to anyone. But isolation will only make your mental health worse.”
She suggests trying your best to connect with someone else at least once a day, even if it’s just a quick conversation to check in with a neighbour, or a phone call with a loved one.
Talk to someone you trust about your mental health
You don’t have to go through this alone. It might help to speak to someone about your money worries, whether that’s a loved one, a support worker, a health professional like your GP, or a helpline like Samaritans.
Mubeen Bhutta, head of policy, public affairs and campaigns at Samaritans, says: “We know that many people find it hard to speak openly or ask for help when they are struggling but talking can be life-saving.
“We’re here to listen, 24/7, day or night. We provide a safe space to talk openly, and we won’t judge or tell you what to do but will simply listen. We know that listening can help you work through how you’re feeling and put things into perspective, to help you feel more positive about the future.”
Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website.
Remember you are not to blame
Ed Davie, policy and public affairs lead at Centre for Mental Health, says: “Everyone’s mental, and physical, health is very strongly influenced by their circumstances – whether a person has enough money, a stable home, is treated fairly, or experienced trauma as a child, for example, all have a significant bearing on their chances of feeling and being well.
“People often have little control over these factors and that lack of a sense of control is itself a risk to mental health. That’s why it is so important that the government, and other bodies, do more to prevent the poverty, housing problems, discrimination, and childhood trauma that cause and worsen illness.”
You could take back a little bit of control by contacting your MP or getting involved with campaigns like Enough is Enough and Warm this Winter to push the government to act.
Make healthy choices if you can
As Davies says, making positive health choices is much easier if a person is not stressed and limited in their choices by a lack of money and time. But he explains that being as physically active as possible (ideally in a natural environment like a park), connecting with other people, gaining new skills, contributing to your community, eating healthily, quitting smoking and drinking less alcohol with support, if necessary, are all shown to reduce mental health risks and money worries.
Peters adds: “If your finances have forced you to give up things which used to support your wellbeing, such as a gym membership or social activities, think about alternatives. See if there are free activities or community support nearby that you can get involved in, and make time each day for something that benefits your mental health.”
“In challenging times, it can be easy for worry to dominate your day, making it more difficult for you to do the things you need to,” Peters adds.
She says one useful technique is to set aside “worry time”, which should be around 30 minutes long, not too close to bedtime. Whenever you find yourself worrying about something throughout the day, write it down, and then try to let it go until your scheduled worry time later. This could help you feel more in control and reduce some of your anxiety.
Peters remarks that it can feel like we’re constantly being bombarded by bad news, so try not to get trapped in a cycle of doom-scrolling.
“If things start to feel overwhelming, think about the things you can control and make positive steps to change them. You might not be able to control your energy bills, but you can make a budget to see exactly what you have coming in and going out.”
If anxiety starts to overwhelm you, Peters suggests you try some simple grounding exercises. For example, focus on each of your five senses, and think of something that you are currently able to see, smell, touch, taste and hear.
A representative for Anxiety UK says there are a variety of self-help tools and resources available via websites, apps and other outlets you can access to help teach you grounding techniques and simple breathing exercises to help keep you calm and relaxed.
The charity offers a range of free resources and self-help tools, information and fact sheets free to download from its website, webinars to watch for free and access to therapy and other services at reduced costs.
Make positive money habits for your mental health
Mind suggests you might find it helpful to take some time to think about your money worries, how you feel about money and why. This could be done by keeping a diary of your spending habits and how you were feeling before and afterwards.
“Once you’ve done this, you might start to feel like you understand your habits and patterns to reduce some of your anxiety,” a spokesperson says.
Mind also advises people to make a list of all the essentials you need to spend money on each month – this could be things like rent or mortgage payments, energy bills, phone bills and food shops.
While you’re doing this, it might be helpful to put all your important documents in one place so you can find them easily. This could be letters, bank statements, payslips, bills and receipts.
You could also set aside a regular time to think about any tasks you need to do around money, for example paying bills. And make sure you plan a relaxing activity for after you’ve finished!
Get help if you need it for money and your mental health
Help is out there. You can get money support from a free professional debt advice organisation, such as National Debtline, StepChange or Citizens Advice. They can help you get a break from paying interest on your debts under a government scheme called Breathing Space. They can also look at your financial situation to see if there are any solutions to your debts. You can usually access this support online, over the phone, or face to face.
“If you’re struggling with money and mental health, it’s really important to seek help as soon as you can,” Sarah Murphy, senior health lead at the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS), says. “By reaching out, you let someone you trust share the burden and start your road to recovery. Taking the first step can be life-changing.”
MaPS, sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions, has a MoneyHelper service with information on how to get help. There are also trained experts you can speak to for free and in confidence if you prefer on 0800 011 3797.
Mind chief executive, Sarah Hughes, said: “The uncertainty of watching as our costs spiral can be difficult to bear and having so much to deal with can affect our mental health. Despite this, looking after our mental wellbeing is often last on our list.
“It’s really important that we all get the support we need – this is a mental health emergency that everyone is going to need help to deal with. We know we can’t fix the cost of living crisis but support for your mental health is out there and we are here for you.”
This includes through Mind’s Infoline, online community Side by Side, and the information available on Mind’s website. The charity has advice for managing money if you are experiencing poor mental health, such as making sure you are claiming any extra money or support you are entitled to and getting to know your money and mood patterns.
Mind, Anxiety UK, Mental Health UK and Samaritans all have advice and resources on their websites to help if you are struggling with your mental health. You can also find what support is available if you’re struggling with money worries in your area on the NHS website, but if you’re in need of urgent support call 111. If your life – or someone else’s – is at risk dial 999.
“You may feel hopeless now,” Peters says, “but remind yourself that this situation will pass, and that you aren’t alone – there is free support out there from charities like ours to help you manage your mental health and money worries.”
Where can I get cost of living support?
At the Big Issue, we want to help get you with money worries through the cost of living crisis. Here are some of our articles with extensive information to help you navigate the circumstances at the moment.