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.

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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.

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