Tory austerity is officially causing a mental health crisis

Steve Topple

It’s official. The Conservative austerity agenda is causing a mental health crisis. The cuts made to housing benefits have seen more than 26,000 people plunged into depression, according to new research. But the figures may well just be the tip of the iceberg. And with more austerity on the way, and mental health services struggling, the situation is only going to get worse.

Relentless cuts

In April 2011, the government changed the criteria for private renters receiving local housing allowance (LHA), in an attempt to save £1.6bn. They reduced the amount that people on low incomes could claim from 50% of the average rate in their local area to 30%, while also introducing the ‘bedroom tax’. Caps were introduced on what could be claimed: £250 per week for one bedroom; £290 per week for two; £340 for three; and £400 for four or more bedrooms.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that the average loss of income for recipients was £1,220 per year, affecting about 1.35 million individuals and potentially tipping 27,000-54,000 children into severe poverty.

Research from the London School of Economics (LSE), University of Oxford, and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has found a direct link between benefit cuts and mental health. Between 2009 and 2013, they surveyed over 179,000 private renters, some in receipt of LHA and some that weren’t. By following these groups over time, the LSE was able to document the impact of the cuts on those affected.

A direct link to depression 

In March 2010, around 20% of the people studied were experiencing depression. After April 2011, researchers found this figure had increased by 10%. This was then weighted against the 1.5 million people receiving LHA in the private rental sector. It meant that around 26,000 additional people receiving housing benefits reported symptoms of depression after the cuts came in.

Aaron Reeves, a professor at LSE International Inequality Institute and lead author of the report, said:

Housing provides shelter and security, protecting health and well-being. But when that security becomes uncertain, health, and mental health in particular, is undermined. The government’s reduction in housing benefit in April 2011 created uncertainty in the lives of some low-income by making their housing less affordable. This reduction in financial support increased the risk of depressive symptoms among those claiming housing benefit over and above other people in the private rented sector.

This is not the first time that austerity has been linked to severe ill health. As The Canary previously reported, a study found that, between 2008 and 2010 in 75 developed countries, over a quarter of a million more people died from cancer than was expected. Furthermore, The Canary reported in January on the alarming rise in deaths among the elderly.

Tory austerity – driving up death rates

Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed a 5.4% (27,000) increase in deaths in 2015 alone. Public Health England (PHE) warned that there was a 4-year trend being witnessed, and linked this to Tory austerity. PHE said the elderly were bearing the worst of Tory austerity cuts, with women suffering disproportionately because they tend to live longer.

Oxford University professor Danny Dorling, an advisor to PHE on older age life expectancy, said:

When we look at 2015, we are not just looking at one bad year. We have seen excessive mortality – especially among women – since 2012. I suspect the largest factor here is cuts to social services – to meals on wheels, to visits to the elderly. We have seen these changes during a period when the health service is in crisis, while social care services have been cut back.

The LSE research on mental health also fits with other reports on austerity and mental health. Research from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford recently found that the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) fit-to-work tests for sick and disabled people have coincided with 590 “additional” suicides, 279,000 cases of mental illness, and 725,000 more prescriptions for antidepressants. Furthermore, research by the mental health charity ReThink found that a staggering 21% of GP patients had experienced suicidal thoughts due to the stress of DWP Work Capability Assessments.

But with the next four years seeing more cuts to services on the cards, things may only get worse. Around £20bn of “efficiency savings” are still to be made in the NHS. The child poverty rates are set to rocket to over 18% by 2020. And more benefit cuts are still to come. All these, coupled with a dire financial forecast for households after Brexit, are creating a perfect storm for a deepening of the mental health crisis in the UK. And the Tories’ relentless austerity agenda is only compounding the problem.

Get Involved!

– If you need to talk to someone, call The Samaritans on 116 123.

– If it is a medical emergency, call 999 immediately.

– Support ReThink, the charity for mental health.

– Write to your MP, calling on them to oppose Tory austerity.

Featured image via Flickr

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