By Andy Bell
This week, the UK Government has made a series of major policy announcements relating to the economy, the cost of living crisis and its plans for health and care services. Taken together, these plans will have a significant impact on the nation’s mental health and the lives of people with mental health difficulties.
The ‘Growth Plan’ published today (23 September) will have particularly significant impacts. Increasing economic inequality, we know from extensive international evidence, causes higher levels of mental ill health in a society. And this is especially the case when people with the least wealth are facing bigger struggles to survive day to day and seeing their incomes fall even further.
Placing limits on energy bills will, of course, safeguard every household from the rising costs of heating their homes. A warm home is a fundamental condition for good mental health. Nonetheless, for the poorest in particular, this winter will still bring increased energy costs as well as the continued rise in the price of food and other essentials. So the benefits to mental health of the energy price limit will not be distributed equally, and could exacerbate inequalities that already put the poorest children in the UK at four times the risk of experiencing a mental health problem by the time they leave primary school.
Helping people into work and ensuring work is good, secure and pays well is another vital underpinning factor for our mental health. The Growth Plan is a missed opportunity to adopt an evidence-based approach to employment services. Extending the application of conditionality and threatening more people with sanctions is unlikely to help many people get work, but it will put more people into poverty and cause significant harm to mental health.
Abandoning the previously planned Health and Social Care Levy, meanwhile, risks undermining future investment in vital public services. Demand for mental health care is rising, and as the cost of living crisis continues to bite and the after-effects of the pandemic crystallise, it is highly likely that more and more people are going to need help with their mental health. Yesterday’s ‘Plan for Patients’ had very little to say about how the NHS would be ready to meet rising demand and growing waiting lists for mental health care.
Last year, the Government made an important commitment to adopt a mental health policy test to ensure that decisions made across government would be assessed for how well they would support the public’s mental health. Such a test would enable all departments to make decisions that would boost wellbeing across the population and ensure people with mental health difficulties get the right support from public services.
Such an approach has never been more needed. We now face a winter that could see more people experience mental ill health and exacerbate distress among those living with mental health conditions. Poverty causes mental ill health and inequality makes it more widespread. We need urgent action to prevent an upsurge in mental illness and to ensure that support is available where and when it’s needed for people who are struggling.
We urge the Government to think again especially about the use of benefit conditionality and call for an immediate moratorium on sanctions this winter. We call on the Government to commit to the NHS Long Term Plan and ensure that sustainable and sufficient social care funding is guaranteed to meet people’s needs. And we call on the Government to commit to reducing child poverty and closing the 20-year life expectancy gap for people living with mental health difficulties as matters of utmost urgency.