The mental health toll of the cost of living crisis

August 2022

Soaring energy bills and food price hikes are biting across West Sussex. We look at the effects on those who are already struggling financially and how it’s affecting people’s mental health locally

With soaring inflation and energy and food price hikes, the statistics around the cost of living crisis make for grim reading.

According to Citizens Advice, one in four people won't be able to afford their energy bills when the new price cap comes into force in October 2022. Meanwhile, the advice organisation has broken some rather unwelcome records already this year – giving out over 25,000 food bank vouchers to households in January 2022 alone, its highest number on record.

With the cost of food and energy increasing at its fastest rate in 30 years, this dramatic rise in living costs is biting locally in West Sussex – and people who are already struggling financially, and those with mental health problems, are among the hardest hit.

Arun and Chichester Citizens Advice has seen a surge in people seeking advice and requiring charitable support, such as fuel vouchers and energy grants. "From September 2021 to February 2022, there was a 45 per cent increase in requests for charitable support and a 31 per cent rise in food bank enquiries,” says Luca Badioli, CEO of Arun and Chichester Citizens Advice. “Although debt enquiries drastically reduced between 2020 and 2021, they are now on the rise again and sadly, this is likely to continue. Energy-related enquiries also continue to be high. The overall picture is that people are really struggling.”

Luca adds that in its profiling of people seeking advice from the service, among those disclosing a disability, mental health is top of the list – with 32 per cent of clients disclosing a mental health condition and another 30 per cent disclosing multiple or permanent disabilities, which could include mental health problems.

It's a similar picture of increasing need at Community House in Worthing, which gives out near-date food to locals in partnership with Waitrose and offers other forms of community support. The organisation has seen a substantial increase in demand for its services compared to 2021.

Clive Cavanagh, community development manager at Worthing Homes, which runs Community House, cites three key indicators of increased need: a three-fold rise in the number of people asking for fuel vouchers, compared to this time last year, “because of the increasing cost of gas and electricity and the loss of Universal Credit uplift”; an increase in the number of people who come to take food from Community House on a daily basis, “which was already significant”; and an increase in the number of “magic bags” the organisation produces, containing staple foods, such as cereals and tins, to meet rising demand.

Eat or heat

“These are anecdotal, but powerful, indicators,” says Clive. “People are struggling – they are concerned about their benefits and the difficulties they encounter getting benefits. We are getting a lot of people who are stressed – and depressed – about their situation. They can see that nothing has improved and they can’t see an end to it... Many of our service users say that they will face the stark choice between eating or heating this winter."

The “eat or heat” dilemma is mirrored by Kirk Lord, a trustee and peer mentor at West Sussex Mind, who runs a group to support men with their mental health in Littlehampton as part of the charity’s social activities programme. Kirk says that heating and food costs were high on the agenda for many service users through winter and spring 2022 and this is likely to continue as the weather gets colder again. “There has been debate about whether it’s better to pay the heating bill or have a meal at night,” says Kirk. “Which is the lesser evil – to not put the heating on or not be able to put food on the table? And especially for those who are on benefits and have had their Universal Credit reduced, there’s huge concern about how they will cover food shopping and utilities.”

Age UK West Sussex Brighton & Hove also reports an increase in calls to its information and advice team asking for debt or benefits advice and concerns expressed among over-50s about making the choice between heating and food. “However frugal people are, they simply do not have enough money coming in to cope with such steep price rises,” says CEO Helen Rice. “When there aren’t luxuries to cut back on, people start having to choose between essentials like heating and food. It’s putting their mental and physical health at risk. It’s dreadful to think that people are living in cold homes and facing malnutrition, because they don’t have enough money to cover the basics.”

Mental health problems can make it hard to ask for financial help

For people who are already struggling with their mental health, financial worries can really add to the strain and make it even harder to seek help and advice. Michelle has struggled with her mental health since she was 16, has borderline personality disorder and suffers from bouts of depression, as well as physical health problems. After her husband left in 2008, she worked part-time in schools as a teaching assistant and business manager, so that she could continue to take her two daughters to school, but had to give up her job in 2015 due to poor mental health. She has been on benefits since then and now volunteers as a peer mentor using her lived experience with Mind in Brighton & Hove.

Michelle is extremely worried about how she, and her daughter who lives at home with her in Cowfold, will cope with rising prices this year and says that asking for help can be even harder during bouts of depression.

“The problem with having long-term mental health problems is that you can get to a point where you lose touch with reality and it becomes difficult to ask for help,” she says. “There is a tiny bridge between where you still feel capable of asking for help and where you are no longer capable. If you’re having problems with your electricity bills or problems paying your rent, you just don’t have the energy to make multiple phone calls and sort things out when your mental health is really bad.”

The stigma around mental health and being on benefits

Recent research from Mind and 2CV examined people in poverty’s experience of stigma and discrimination in accessing mental health and financial advice services, and found that less than one in five people living in poverty had sought guidance on financial issues and if they had, they had left seeking help until they were really desperate. The reasons for this are complex and many, but the research, which surveyed local Minds and their service users, found that there was a lot of shame and stigma about the visible ‘symptoms’ of poverty, such as being on benefits, using food banks or getting into debt.

This is certainly something that Michelle has experienced since she had to give up her job. “When I was working at school, life was difficult [as a single mum], but I had a sense of pride in my job, I was managing with my kids and paying for everything myself. But when I had to give up work, I felt like I had the carpet whipped from beneath my feet. You feel useless; you don’t feel like a human being. You experience lots of negativity, because there is so much stigma attached to being on benefits.”

Rupert, who has depression and ADHD and physical health problems that mean he cannot work, echoes this sentiment. “Asking for help can add to my anxiety, because I feel judged for being on benefits, even though I am genuinely ill.” He has recently sought financial advice to make a claim for Personal Independence Payment and is now getting help for his mental health with West Sussex Mind, but says that “trying to find an organisation that can help with my PiP claim has been extremely difficult.”

Mental health and poverty are connected

The link between poverty and mental health is well known among advice and support organisations and there is increasing awareness around this. Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that people with mental health problems can fall into a “spiral of adversity” where unemployment, income and relationships are affected by their mental health experiences, creating a poverty and poor mental health trap. Meanwhile a recent study from the Institute of Public Policy Research found that adults in areas with high levels of poverty were three times more likely to have been diagnosed with depression.

With increasing numbers of people struggling financially due to the rising cost of living now, it is likely that there will be a knock-on effect on mental health – hot on the heels of increased financial and mental health needs post-pandemic.

Asking for help is crucial

Although Luca from Arun and Chichester Citizens Advice acknowledges that it can be difficult to reach out for help, he says that once people do, they can be better equipped to prevent difficulties in the future. “In my 19 years at Citizens Advice, it is my experience that people often leave it until the critical point, when the bailiff is at the door, to ask for help. But if someone is in crisis, it is our job to find out what the underlying issues are behind the crisis – and to equip them to prevent future problems and to increase their resilience to financial stress.”

Age UK West Sussex Brighton & Hove’s CEO, Helen, says that although some people wait until they are in a desperate situation before getting in touch, “others just aren’t aware that there is help available. They don’t think they would be entitled to any benefits. But a quick check might show them they could actually access a range of support.”

She says that some callers have literally ended up in tears of relief when they hear they can claim certain benefits to help them live better. “It can also have an immediate positive impact on their mental health,” she says.

Bringing mental health and financial support together

At Arun and Chichester Citizens Advice, Luca recognises that people feel stigma if they are on benefits and that there can be a “double stigma” if people are also struggling with their mental health. However, he says that at Citizens Advice, over the last five years or so, more people are disclosing mental health conditions when they come for help, and it is up to advice and mental health organisations to work together/campaign to remove stigma and to ensure that people can access the help they need. Mind’s people in poverty research acknowledges that there is “a role for a more holistic approach with better mental health support (or at least ‘understanding’) to be available in the other services that people in poverty might interact with (e.g. debt advice).”

“In the future, we need to design services where end users feel more comfortable getting help,” concludes Luca from Citizens Advice. “All organisations supporting vulnerable people should aim to work in a more joined-up way, so that people can get help for a number of issues in a way that feels comfortable for them and without feeling shame.”