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This is why mental health should be a political priority

This is why mental health should be a political priority
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  • Depression and anxiety are up to three times as likely for those on low incomes.
  • 55% of women report a significant impact from COVID-19-related income loss.
  • Unemployed people are less mentally and physically resilient than those in work.

It’s an age-old question: does money make us happier? The answer, it seems, is yes, when it comes to the links between poverty and poor mental health. The good news is that, according to a new study, targeted financial support and low-cost therapeutic interventions can help.

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to millions of people losing their jobs, with some communities hit harder and low-income families disproportionately affected. In the United States, 46% of adults on low incomes have struggled to pay their bills since the start of the pandemic, with 32% finding it tough to meet rent or mortgage payments.

Researchers have also found that unemployed people are less mentally and physically resilient than those in work. Depression and anxiety are up to three times as likely for people with low incomes, with the impact of joblessness on mental health worse in countries with widespread income inequality and weak unemployment protection.

“The bottom line is people need to eat. They need to have shelter. They need to have health care,” David Blustein, a professor of counselling, developmental and educational psychology at Boston College, told the American Psychological Association for an article on the toll of job loss.

The causal relationship between poverty and common mental illnesses.
Poverty and depression are interlinked in a way that drives a vicious cycle.
Image: Science magazine

The poverty gender gap

Women, who are more likely to work in informal jobs and have caregiving responsibilities, are at particular risk. In a survey of more than 10,000 people in nearly 40 countries, 55% of women reported a significant impact from COVID-19-related income loss, compared with 34% of men, while 27% of women experienced increased struggles with mental health issues, compared with 10% of men.

Anti-poverty programmes, including cash transfers, can help to reduce the effects of depression and anxiety caused by job loss, unstable living conditions, and poor nutrition, according to a study by researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Because the impact on mental health from living in such circumstances begins at the earliest age and can lead to impaired cognitive development into adulthood, the study advocates specific financial support for pregnant women and the parents of young children living in poverty.

“Poverty is associated with volatile income and expenditures,” the researchers said.

“The resulting worries and uncertainty can worsen mental health. Providing health, employment, or weather insurance, or other ways of smoothing shocks, may thus lower depression and anxiety.”

Urgent stabilization

Early in the pandemic, countries around the world introduced emergency support programmes for those at greatest financial risk. In the US, where more than 40 million people claimed unemployment insurance in the first two months of disruption, the federal government offered an additional $600 per week benefit.

When those payments ended, it left 12 million without support by the end of the year, according to The Century Foundation – although President Joe Biden has pledged new COVID aid packages for the unemployed and low-income families.

The UK introduced furlough payments, covering 80% of wages to prevent layoffs, which it has rolled over until April 2021, while India met urgent needs at ground level – for example, by giving women under the poverty line a three-month supply of liquid petroleum gas for heating, and distributing an additional five kilograms of wheat and rice to those covered under a national food scheme.

Financial and psychological support

According to the study, Poverty, depression, and anxietyCausal evidence and mechanisms, published in Science magazine, the pandemic could have lasting impacts on the economic and mental well-being of those on low incomes. It calls for further investigation into a mental-health based “poverty trap”, in which job losses feed into anxiety and low self-esteem, knocking the confidence that is needed to find new employment.

This is why mental health treatment – offering low-cost counselling – is also part of the solution: “Given the associated economic benefits of improved mental health,” the research authors suggest, “such interventions should be a part of the anti-poverty toolkit.”

When it comes to anti-poverty policies, there are a range of options available, from investment in quality housing to health care reform. One thing that’s clear is that the effects of the pandemic have made addressing endemic poverty more important than ever.

According to the Harvard and MIT study, “A massive investment in mental health was already long overdue. It has now become critically urgent.”

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