Opinion

The mental health effects of the cost of living crisis should spur government action

Michael Hough, policy and public affairs officer at the Mental Health Foundation and Rachelle Earwaker, senior economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, call on the government to act to end poverty and protect mental health in the cost of living crisis

cost of living crisis

People protest as the cost of living crisis spirals. Image: Alisdare Hickson/ Flickr

The cost of living crisis is showing no signs of receding. The harsh financial reality faced by millions of people is harming the mental health of the nation, sinking us into a crisis that we will not be able to overcome unless governments act now.

Our mental health is shaped by the circumstances in which we live, meaning that mental health problems are not evenly distributed across the whole population. As usual, it is those who have the least who are paying the highest cost. Poverty and financial strain increase the risk of poor mental health and are both a cause and a consequence of mental ill health, particularly anxiety and depression.

So, how bad is it? In the last decade we have lived through austerity and community spending being slashed, a global pandemic followed by the current cost of living crisis. The negative impact of all of this is more keenly felt by people who were already living at the sharp end of socio-economic inequality. There has been no breathing space, no respite.

Recent polling, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation for our Mental Health Awareness Week, revealed the most common self-reported cause of anxiety for people across the UK was being able to pay bills; 32% of UK adults said being unable to pay their bills had made them feel anxious in the past two weeks. In the same poll, 20% of UK adults said debt had made them feel anxious in the last two weeks.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

Among low-income households who said they were going without at least one essential, nearly half (47%) reported at least one household member experiencing poor mental health in the last two years, compared to 14% of households not going without essentials. Of the low-income households with a member who had a mental health condition, more than half (51%) reported going without three or more essentials in the last six months.

These statistics make for stark reading, but it seems like so many people are desensitised to this news as we live in this “new normal”. We must not accept this fate. Our governments must commit to protecting public mental health by reducing poverty and alleviating the negative impacts of financial strain. 

We welcome the small steps that have been taken, such as the introduction of the cost of living grant but governments across the UK must do more to help people experiencing poor mental health due to their current financial situation.

We’re proud to work together, along with our colleagues at The Trussell Trust, on the Essentials Guarantee campaign. This calls for the UK government to make sure that the basic rate of universal credit is at least enough to afford essentials, such as food, household bills and travel costs, and that support can never be pulled below that level.



There’s no denying that political decisions have contributed to the situation we now find ourselves in. As a rule of thumb, all government decisions should take into consideration the potential impact on the public’s mental health. This can be done with the implementation of a mental health and wellbeing policy assessment tool to ensure that there are no unwanted side-effects that are damaging to mental health. 

Within our communities, governments must ensure that community groups which are providing vital support to people across the UK are adequately funded. These groups are essential for supporting social connection and good mental health. Additionally, frontline workers such as those at energy companies, banks, and public services, including benefits offices and health services, must be equipped to respond effectively and compassionately to the mental health effects of financial strain in a way that will not stigmatise or cause distress. 

Those who dismiss these proposals often claim the measures are too expensive but with poor mental health costing the UK more than £117 billion per year (much of this is lost productivity and informal care costs), and waiting lists for mental health services lasting months or years, how can we afford not to? 

If we want to stop millions of people developing mental health problems, we need to direct our energy and investment to tackling the root causes. Governments across the UK must act now to reduce the number of people living in poverty. It must ensure that communities are well resourced to support healthy living and that good mental health is a priority in all policy decisions.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Billionaires are making a killing during cost of living crisis – we can't afford to accept this
Daisy Pearson

Billionaires are making a killing during cost of living crisis – we can't afford to accept this

Christopher Eccleston on his love affair with running: 'I always feel better after a run'
Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston on his love affair with running: 'I always feel better after a run'

Healthcare for trans youth is a human right – it should matter to us all
trans rights human rights
Chiara Capraro

Healthcare for trans youth is a human right – it should matter to us all

Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan
Sudan conflict protest
Nick Beales

Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know