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We must break the link between mental health and poverty

Evidence shows the universal credit system is having a negative effect on mental health. It's time for reform, writes Dr Katie Pybus.

The term ‘unprecedented’ has been used a lot over the past year. Since the UK entered a national lockdown last March, we have all had to adjust to fundamental changes in our living and working conditions, our finances, and our relationships with family and friends. A new report suggests that the pandemic may be taking its toll. Mental health problems – already affecting one in four people each year before the pandemic – are on the rise.

For families living on a low income, however, there is nothing unprecedented about the daily struggle of trying to get by on limited funds or about the negative impact this all too often has on mental health. Life was already difficult before the pandemic and the pressures on incomes have been further compounded by increased heating, food and energy bills attached to staying at home, as well as costs associated with home-schooling and looking after children.

Through Covid Realities, a major research programme funded by the Nuffield Foundation and working in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group, we have been working with parents and carers living on a low income to understand what life has been like during the pandemic and how the social security system is working for families. Our report, out today, explores parents and carers experiences of universal credit and how this has impacted on their mental health.

Parents and carers told us that they had experienced stress, anxiety and low mood while claiming universal credit. These experiences were linked with trying to get by on payments that were not sufficient to cover living costs and financial insecurity associated with the way in which universal credit operates currently – from the five-week wait to requirements to look for work during the pandemic. 

Trying to cope with this precarity while managing the additional stresses and strains brought about by Covid-19 has impacted significantly on families, as Holly W, a lone mother of two from North East England, described as part of the Covid Realities research.

“I am currently being forced to look for work and to show evidence of looking ’online’ for work for over 20 hours a week. With no wifi and having to pay for data I am unsure of how that is physically possible,” she said. “I am also expected to home-school my six year old three days every week and my daughter two weeks in every month. I cannot see how a job will work. The pressure is immense and there is the threat of UC stopping payments.”

In a separate analysis, we also found links between increased antidepressant prescriptions and universal credit across local authorities in England. While we cannot say from this data that universal credit alone has caused the rise, it does point to increased psychological distress amongst claimants.

Taken together, our findings suggest a pressing need to improve the adequacy of financial support provided by universal credit and give more certainty to claimants about what they will be paid and when. These are key areas that need to be addressed to ensure the social security system promotes the wellbeing of users and does not worsen psychological distress. 

Extending the £20 uplift, currently due to end in September 2021, would be a great first step. Winter O, a Covid Realities participant and mother of two, explains how this additional money has not provided disposable income, but simply helped to cover existing costs:

“The proposed change [removing £20 uplift] is the difference between paying our bills and not being able to pay some of them. And if one-off expenses crop up (like new shoes for kids etc) then you can’t cover it. Any changes to benefits are very stressful.”

Improving the financial support available to families with children could go a long way towards addressing the harmful effects of poverty on mental health. This is why, as well as outlining why the £20 uplift should continue, we are also calling for increased support for children through child benefit or increased child allowances in universal credit payments, and an end to the two-child limit and the benefit cap.

If these are unprecedented times, then they also present us with an unprecedented opportunity. Reforming universal credit so that it provides an effective safety net for families and does not make life more stressful could help to break some of the harmful links between poverty and mental health. With a doubling of universal credit claimants during the pandemic, the time to meet these challenges has never been more urgent.

Importantly, any changes need to be made in partnership with people living on a low income to ensure the system works best for those who use it. As we move out of the pandemic, social security could have a key role to play in improving our nation’s mental health. The time to start investing in families is now.

Dr Katie Pybus is a research fellow at the department of health sciences at the University of York.