Simon Lawton Smith, Head of Policy at the Mental Health Foundation:
"The unemployment figures that were published by the ONS last week make sobering reading. Across the UK, unemployment rose by 118,000 in the three months to November to around 2.7 million. In England the number of young people looking for work hit a new record of 1.04m, taking the unemployment rate for 16-24 year-olds to 22.3%.
We are clearly a long way from escaping the recession that has had such an impact on jobs, and led to so many people being made redundant. But how exactly do recessions affect our mental well-being? The World Health Organisation has published a report entitled ‘Impact of economic crises on mental health’ which gives a fairly persuasive answer to this question.
It won’t come as a great surprise that the report shows that people’s mental health is strongly linked to socioeconomic conditions. Unemployment, debt, poor housing and low productivity are a big cause of poor mental health – and they can also themselves be caused by poor mental health. In times of recession, this vicious circle is even more pronounced and particularly hardest hit are the poor, the very people who experience higher rates of common mental disorders in the first place.
The crux of the matter is a very simple one. Essentially, economic health and mental health are like Siamese twins - you can’t have one without the other.
The WHO believes we can mitigate the effects of economic recession with good policy (and also a healthy dose of investment). Their report highlights the need for active labour market programmes to improve prospects of finding employment, debt relief programmes to help those struggling, more family support and effective primary care for those at high risk of developing mental health problems. Little to argue with there - these are all sound steps and, importantly, they address the root cause of the problems, as well as helping to manage the after-effects.
But there are some more practical steps we can take. For example, GPs need to be particularly attentive to mental health problems when seeing patients that have recently been made redundant or lost their home, and offer them advice and treatment accordingly. We need to promote volunteering opportunities as a way of keeping unemployed people active and motivated, both mentally and socially. We need more mental health promotion programmes offering clear, accessible and evidence-based advice on how to maintain good mental well-being when people are going through difficult times, as well as information on where to turn to when we need help.
It doesn’t all come down to money. There’s plenty we can be doing ourselves to stay mentally healthy – keeping active, eating well, volunteering, staying in touch with friends and family. But there’s a very strong case for investing in programmes to support everyone’s mental health today in order to reduce levels of mental health problems tomorrow. If we don’t heed these warnings about the impact of the recession on mental health, then this has a real cost in the longer term to individuals, families, communities and wider society."
24 January 2012