Studies beginning to highlight a burden of human suffering follows austerity Carl Walker TAP health equality Blog 8
TAP Health Equality Campaign Blog 8
Studies beginning convincingly to highlight ‘burden of human suffering’ that followed austerity policies. TAP health equality blog 8.
Carl Walker concludes; The focus on happiness and the exclusion of poverty and deprivation in policy conversations is profoundly dangerous. Layard promulgates a happiness agenda based on the type of positive psychology that has informed recent government policy interventions that emphasise a strengths-based approach. However no personal strengths are more valuable than providing pathways to meaningful jobs or affordable housing and a positive outlook is not enough to overcome the lack of a living income. Poverty and disadvantage matter to mental health now more than ever.
In times of austerity how ‘mental’ is ‘mental health’?
Carl Walker – University of Brighton and
Psycholgists Against Austerity
In my first article in this series Blog 2 I questioned the ‘personal’ in ‘personal debt’. Today, and in light of recent policy interest in the work of Lord Richard Layard, I am going to ask how ‘mental is mental health’. Layard’s study, headlined the “Origins of happiness”, made the claim that eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20%, while eliminating poverty would only reduce it by 5%. Putting aside the debate about whether you can meaningfully separate misery and mental illness, I would like to instead take issue with the notion that eliminating poverty would barely impact mental health.
Let us start with the by now well-worn austerity story. Austerity economics and ideas constitute a recent flavour of the entrenched inequalities, cuts and scapegoating that has punished people for the best part of 30 years. What has variously woven its way through recent history as the ‘protection of society from the ravages of unionisation’ and ‘the common sense logic of workfare’ now takes its latest form in austerity- the doctrine which finally lets countries say ‘enough is enough’ to their national deficits. Since 2010 we have seen a rapid acceleration in the uncompromising assault on incomes, standards and the conditions of life that has been positioned as the necessary price to pay for allowing generations of welfare cheats to run the national coffers dry.
The reality is quite different. Public debts have been used by national and international institutions to force through economic policies which act against the interests of ordinary people. Central to the success of the austerity paradigm has been the establishment of debt, both personal and public as the governing principal of societies in the global North.
Jones et al (2013) suggest that, since 2005, the gambling industry has used loopholes in the law to turn geographical areas into ones where gambling is socially and culturally normalised. For instance, planning regulations mean that, in high streets in decline, post offices, shops, banks and cafes can be converted into betting shops without permission. Pawn shops, ATMs and other sources of easy credit can and often do spring up around them. Indeed there is evidence that the gambling industry targets the social groups that are more vulnerable to gambling in the first place.
Communities and Local Authorities are largely powerless to challenge the emergence of what the authors describe as ‘debtogenic’ urban landscapes. In such circumstances, when we know already the clear causal link between problem personal debt and mental health problems2, mental health starts to look like a more social phenomena.
The policies and discourses of the austerity paradigm are damaging to the wellbeing of an increasing number of people. The starting point for this concerns income inequality. It is estimated that 50% of the top 1% of income earners work in financial services and that GDP growth has little importance to households since they no longer have a stake in it. Indeed between 2009 and 2010 national income grew by £27bn, £24bn went to profits and only about £2bn to wages3. For Wilkinson & Pickett4, inequality is socially corrosive and they have mobilised a range of compelling evidence to show that what is important in terms of wellbeing is not absolute income but income relative to others- a marker of social status and inequality relates clearly to social and health related problems.
In his seminal report, Marmot (2010)5 noted that an increase in income leads to an increase in psychological wellbeing and the more debts someone has, the more likely they will have a mental health problem. A recent report6 highlighted the recent cumulative health studies which are beginning to convincingly Original Text
highlight the ‘burden of human suffering’ that has followed from austerity policies. It is not economic downturns per se that matter but the austerity and welfare ‘reforms’ that may follow: ‘austerity kills’ and it particularly ‘kills’ those in lower socio-economic positions”7.
So what does this mean for how we understand and talk about the ‘mental’ in mental health? All manner of large scale social forces and discreet local social experiences can impact mental health. Ways of experiencing the world are structured through social class, abuse, gender, race, sexuality, disability, exclusion and grinding poverty. To explain the suffering of poor mental health you need to embed individual biographies in the larger matrix of culture, history and political economy8.
Poor mental health is consistently associated with markers of social inequality such as unemployment, low income and impoverished education8. The long term impact of poverty, inequality and the corrosive effects of dysfunctional political regimes are often the reasons why people become distressed8.
The focus on happiness and the exclusion of poverty and deprivation in policy conversations is profoundly dangerous. Layard promulgates a happiness agenda based on the type of positive psychology that has informed recent government policy interventions that emphasise a strengths-based approach. However no personal strengths are more valuable than providing pathways to meaningful jobs or affordable housing and a positive outlook is not enough to overcome the lack of a living income. Poverty and disadvantage matter to mental health now more than ever.
1. Jones, R., Pykett, J., & Whitehead, M. (2013). Changing behaviours: On the rise of the psychological state. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
2. Walker, C, Cunningham. L, Hanna, P, Ambrose, P. (2013). Responsible individuals and irresponsible institutions: a report into mental health and the UK credit industry. University of Brighton.
3. Levitas, R. (2012). The Just’s umbrella: Austerity and the big society in coalition policy and beyond. Critical Social policy, 32, 320.
4. Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane.
5. Marmot, M. (2010). Fair society, healthy lives. The Marmot review. London. Available at: The Marmot Review.
6. Caritas Europa. (2014). The European crisis and its human cost- A call for alternatives and solutions.
7. Stuckler, D, and Basu, S. (2013). The body economic- why austerity kills. Penguin Books.
6. Walker, C, Hanna, P, Hart, A. (2017). Democratising distress: Reforming approaches to suffering through community mental health. Palgrave MacMillan.