In recent months, the phrase, ‘cost of living crisis’, has gained significant traction. It almost feels like a part of every other sentence that we see or hear. This is not without reason. The high cost of living has meant that poverty has skyrocketed and more people are depressed, anxious, and suicidal, but there is little support available to help people survive. Politicians, journalists, banks, organisations, and many prominent figures have frequently cited the phrase when discussing recent policy and practice changes, but what does it actually mean? This post discusses what the cost-of-living crisis is, how it has impacted our mental health and what we can do to help ourselves.
What is the cost-of-living crisis?
The UK government has defined the cost-of-living crisis as the ‘fall in real disposable incomes … that the UK has experienced since late 2021’ (1). In other words, average wages have not grown enough to match the rising costs of everyday essentials which leaves less money in the pockets of individuals. This, unfortunately, appears to be a global issue that has drawn the attention of the United Nations (UN). In 2022, the UN Development Programme produced a report stating that over 51 million people in 159 countries may have been pushed into ‘extreme poverty’ as a result of the cost-of-living crisis (2). Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, gave a bleak statement at a press conference where he said that ‘no country or community [would] be left untouched by this cost-of-living crisis’ (3). In the UK, the widespread impact of the cost-of-living crisis is glaringly obvious.
There are multiple contributing factors to the crisis in the UK. This includes soaring inflation; the detrimental impact of the war in Ukraine on energy supplies and associated costs; knock-on effects from the financial measures taken to support people during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the lingering consequences of Brexit (2–4). The rising cost of living has seeped into all aspects of society including leisure and public health, making it not just an economic issue but a social one as well.
What does this mean for our mental health?
The events of the last few years have knocked our collective mental health. The combination of the aftereffects of the pandemic and the well-known negative impact of long-term low economic status on mental health has created a bleak and hostile living environment (5,6). People are struggling to afford their basic needs, and activities to support their overall wellbeing are quickly becoming unattainable luxuries. Healthcare professionals have been trying to draw attention to how the cost-of-living crisis is further impacting public health (7,8).
Many studies have reported on the negative effects of poverty and deprivation on mental health. One such study by Murali and Oyebode reported that low economic status was linked to an increased likelihood of developing a mental health issue (5). Of particular note, Murali and Oyebode suggested that Black women living in economic hardship were more likely to develop substance addictions than White women, who were more likely to develop alcohol addictions. The following infographic, provided by Rehab Recovery, details some more effects of the cost-of-living crisis on the nation’s mental health.
Internal government research shows that food bank use is at an all-time high, with many of these organisations struggling to cope with the surge of new users (9). Numerous households are having to make the impossible choice between heating their homes and eating (10). Perhaps unsurprisingly, a report by the Runnymede Trust suggests that the cost-of-living crisis is affecting Black and minority ethnic people to a greater degree than White people.
According to Runnymede’s ‘Falling Faster’ report, Black and minority ethnic people are more than twice as likely to be in poverty as a result of the cost-of-living crisis (11). Another report by the Women’s Budget Group suggests that Black women are one of the worst affected groups, with 40% of us reported to be living in poverty (12). Disabled Black women are at an even greater disadvantage. Disabled women are more likely to be unemployed and, with significant cuts to social support and services in recent years, 51% of disabled women reported experiencing poorer mental health (13).
When you consider all of these things, it can seem like society is crumbling around us. How is one expected to ‘live, laugh, love’ in these conditions?
What can we do to minimise the impact?
The cost-of-living crisis might be out of our control, but there are some steps we can take and resources that we can use to help buffer its effects on our mental health.
Seeking professional help from mental health services can be an effective way to support your mental health. However, funding cuts to social services and increasing demand can make access to these services difficult and/or costly (14). Wait times to receive support from NHS mental health services can be long, sometimes spanning years. Groups like The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network and Therapy for Black Girls offer directories of culturally competent therapists as a potential alternative route to centralised mental health support.
Additionally, many banks, including Barclays, Santander, and HSBC, offer free money management advice. Most of the financial advice provided is applicable to everyone and not restricted to customers of each bank.
Having social support through community can also be an effective buffer between the negative impact of the cost-of-living crisis on our mental health. A good support network can help to fill gaps left by public social systems. Having a safe environment to vent with other people who can relate to your experiences has been identified as a useful coping strategy, especially for Black women (15). Community can be found or created anywhere - with friends, family, cultural or social groups like the Black Women in Science Network. The ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype is admirable, but it can be detrimental to our mental health (16). Leaning on people we love and trust when we need to is more than okay because we all need a little help sometimes, especially in these seemingly never-ending ‘unprecedented circumstances’. Check-in with your support network - sometimes together is the best way through something.
Physical movement and exercise have also been shown to benefit mental health (17). Exercise can help improve mental health through various physiological and psychological methods including boosting endorphin production, reducing inflammation linked to the development of depression, and helping to provide a distraction from negative thoughts. Whether it’s Pilates, going for a walk, running, or weightlifting at the gym, if exercising is an option that is open to you, it can be a great way to support both your mental and physical health.
Lastly, increasing your vitamin D intake may also help to boost your mental health. Black African and Caribbean people are more likely to have insufficient vitamin D levels, which has been linked to experiencing increased depressive symptoms (18,19). Getting as much sunlight as possible (with sunscreen applied), eating vitamin D-fortified foods, and taking supplements are all good ways to help increase your vitamin D intake (20,21). Remember to consult your GP before taking supplements.
Life may be less than ideal at the moment, but it’s important to remember that it won’t always be this way. Progress may be slow, but in the meantime, finding joy where you can and making use of the strategies and resources available can help to support your mental health. For even more practical resources, our friends at Gal-dem published a guide to support people through the cost of living crisis. It is definitely worth checking out!
By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer
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