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Social Justice

‘Heartbreaking’ reports from food bank users show mental health impact of poverty

One food bank user who took part in a new study said she had been sanctioned by the government for missing a job centre appointment – when she was in A&E.

Soaring UK poverty forcing people to use food banks is creating a “toxic environment” for their mental health, according to “heartbreaking” new research.

People pushed into poverty – by cuts and freezes to benefits, insecure and low-paying work, and rapidly increasing living costs – reported feeling “trapped, hopeless, and a burden on others”.

The demand for emergency food in the UK was already increasing before the pandemic, with around 43 per cent of households on universal credit struggling to afford or access enough food. By 2020, the number of parcels given out by independent food banks had doubled on the previous year. Demand continued to increase through 2021, and was still on an upward trend when the research was carried out.

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Tom Pollard, a mental health social worker and writer, interviewed people at Earlsfield food bank in south London and The Community Cupboard in Sevenoaks, Kent, in November and December last year for the study.

The participants, all of whom received universal credit, reported anxiety and stress brought about by their circumstances which became a “constant, grinding presence in their lives”. Many said they had either developed mental health problems while struggling on a low income or had preexisting mental health conditions exacerbated.

Even those who did not believe they were experiencing mental health problems often indicated they were feeling impacted in other ways.

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“Ever since we’ve not been working and we’re in this bother, I’m getting a lot of headaches and pains in my stomach and a load of ulcers,” a 43-year-old woman, living with her partner and two children, told Pollard. “When I go to bed, I’m always worrying about things, so I’m always awake at night.”

The study – co-produced with the Independent Food Aid Network and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – revealed the cyclical impact of hardship on people’s lives and their ability to plan for the future, with “the impact of being in poverty …  trapping them in poverty”. Nearly everyone interviewed had accrued debts as a result of being unable to afford daily essentials.

“Mental health problems are complex and people respond to difficult circumstances in different ways,” report author Pollard told The Big Issue. “However, the hardship faced by the people I spoke to in food banks was causing a sustained level of pressure and stress that was taking an inevitable psychological toll. 

“Although people spoke about many issues they were experiencing – poor housing, problems with debt, difficulties finding secure employment – their fundamental challenge was insufficient income. 

“Our social security system should not allow people to reach a point where they cannot afford to meet their basic needs – doing so causes immense distress and puts a huge strain on other services that are left to pick up the pieces.” 

Despite being “immensely grateful” for the support, participants described feeling reluctant and ashamed of having to use food banks. One told Pollard it had taken her 12 weeks to get past the “anxiety and embarrassment” and finally “get through the door” of her local food aid centre.

The constraints of poverty on day-to-day life led some to lead a “monotonous and secluded existence”, according to the report, while the pressure of navigating social security red tape left them without the headspace to take on new challenges – resulting in them being low on energy and seeing their mental health deteriorate.

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“At our food bank, we’re seeing a steep increase in new registrations, and also the return of many people we’d helped before who’d got back on their feet but are now struggling again,” said Charlotte White, manager of Earlsfield food bank.  

“What’s also worrying is the complexity of issues that people are coming in with – numerous problems with benefits, debt, housing etcetera, all of which are impacting their mental health.  

“People talk a lot about being overwhelmed – the support simply isn’t there. And sadly, people also talk about the shame they feel, they talk of ‘letting their families down’ when in reality it’s the perfect storm of benefit cuts, cost-of-living increase and reduced working hours that has caused their need for food aid.” 

Some study participants said the combined effect of difficult circumstances and mental health problems had, at points, made them feel suicidal.

One individual – a 49-year-old woman living with her three children and one grandchild – said she had been sanctioned by the government for missing a job centre appointment, despite being in A&E. She called and left a message for her adviser, including details of who to contact at the hospital to verify the situation, she said, but her payments were still temporarily reduced.

“This heart-breaking report must act as a warning sign to us all,” said Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network. “Food insecurity is growing at an unprecedented scale and its impact on people’s mental and physical health simply cannot be ignored. 

“The absolute minimum the government must do is to ensure social security payments are uprated in line with inflation.” Benefits will increase by 3.1 per cent next month despite predictions that inflation could hit at least seven per cent.

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The £20-per-week universal credit cut made last October piled extra pressure on low-income households, but people relying on food aid said even the increased rate was too little to cover the increasing cost of essentials. When asked how much extra per month would be necessary to improve their circumstances, most said between £150 and £300 more per month.

The research did not set out to make policy recommendations, Pollard said, but found it “evident” that a social security system which better met people’s basic costs would “not only remove the need for food aid but also relieve a huge amount of suffering”, while secure and better-paying jobs would be crucial in the long term.

“We all know that worrying about money, keeping a roof over your head and food on the table can take a real toll on your mental health,” Emma Wincup, research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told The Big Issue.

“This research shows just how seriously people and their families can be affected by living in a situation where they are in need of support from food banks. Nobody should be in a position where they can’t afford the essentials they need to eat, keep dry and warm, and keep clean.

“This situation could also become much worse if inflation hits its projected seven per cent when benefits are being updated by less than half of this. We need to see action now to ensure that more people are not pulled into this dire situation.”

Read Tom Pollard’s reflections on his research here.

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