From education to employment

Meeting the Mental Health Challenge of Mass Youth and Adult Unemployment

Lucy Thorpe, Mental Health Foundation

Employment and Good Work 

Employment adds meaning to our lives and is connected with our sense of identity. It is important for realising our potential, achieving a sense of purpose and contributing to our communities.

For adults in the workforce, employment is usually their main source of income, a determinant of social status and an important source of vital social networks (NICE, 2009).

“Good work” – a living wage, control and influence over working environment, flexibility, opportunities for development, and adequate working conditions – is good for our mental health (Marmot, M et al, 2012).

Unemployment, Poor Mental Health and Suicide

The relationship between unemployment and poor mental health is well-evidenced. Unemployment negatively affects self-esteem and increases feelings of distress; an estimated 34% of unemployed people have mental distress, compared to 16% of those employed (Paul, KI & Moser, K, 2009).

There is also an association between unemployment and suicide. A time-trend analysis of the 2008-2010 economic recession in England identified that each 10% increase in the number of unemployed men was significantly associated with a 1.4% (0.5% to 2.3%) increase in male suicides. About two-fifths of the increase in male suicides during this period can be attributed to rising unemployment.

The pandemic has led to major increases in unemployment. ONS data show a large increase in the UK unemployment rate in the three months to November 2020 – estimated at 5.0%, 1.2 percentage points higher than a year earlier – and the redundancy rate has reached a record high of 14.2 per thousand.

Job Insecurity and Poor Mental Health

Job insecurity also increases the risk of depressive symptoms (Kim & von dem Knesebeck, 2016), and adult unemployment can have a negative effect on children’s mental health – those living with socioeconomic disadvantage are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems (Reiss,F 2013).

Mental Health Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic

The Mental Health Foundation’s Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic study has found that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the mental health of unemployed people. Our December 2020 figures1 show that they are more likely to be anxious/worried (60% of those unemployed vs 54% of the UK population), while more than a third are suffering

1 All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 4,277 UK adults 18+. Fieldwork was undertaken be- tween 21st and 23rd December 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

from loneliness and a third have feelings of hopelessness. Further, 50% of those unemployed are concerned that the stress of the pandemic is worsening their mental health problems, and 26% reported experiencing suicidal thoughts in the previous two weeks (compared to 12% of the UK general population). This has increased from 17% in April 2020 (when the UK figure was 8%).

In September 2020 a BMJ Opinion article advised health services to prepare for the anticipated mental health impact of mass unemployment. It highlighted that much of the economic impact – and its effects – have thus far been mitigated by government action and support for those at risk of and experiencing these effects, such as furlough and loan schemes. Many measures have been extended, but will end soon. Much now depends on which protective measures the government extends, and how; announcements are expected in the Budget on March 3rd. As has been observed by The Health Foundation, we are largely powerless to affect the pandemic’s shock to the economy, but the policy response is – for government – a choice.

Intergenerational and Family Impacts of Unemployment on Mental Health

Negative economic effects have not however been equally distributed; focused attention will be needed on groups who have experienced particular work and economic stress: younger workers, lower earners, black and minority ethnic workers and those on atypical contracts have been most likely to face reductions in hours and earnings (Health Foundation, 2021).

The effects of unemployment can be long-lasting and inter-generational; consideration should therefore be given both to the education and training needs of the whole population of young people – many of whom will need to make up for the ‘crisis in lost learning’ resulting from pandemic-related restrictions – and to people of working age, who might need new knowledge and skills.


The first framework developed to address the detrimental impact of mass unemployment on population health shows that education providers have an important role in building skills capacity, and working with other sectors to capitalise on local resources (Davies, AR et al, 2019). Against this background, the Mental Health Foundation proposes the following recommendations.

Recommendation 1

Responses to the mental health risks of mass unemployment should not only be about additional services but include prevention and early intervention. An integrated public health approach is therefore needed to protect people from the multiple effects of mass unemployment on individuals, families and communities.

Recommendation 2

Targeted support to assist young people and adults who experience unemployment should prioritise mental health support alongside practical help with job-searching and the benefits system, job creation programmes, skills training and participating in full-time education (Mental Health Foundation, 2021).

Recommendation 3

Extended, well-supported access to education, training and retraining is required by young people to make-up for lost learning and adults who need new knowledge and skills.

Lucy Thorpe, Mental Health Foundation

Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021

This article is from the new publication Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021: issues for post-16 education, employment, the world of work and retirement’. 

Some of the issues and concerns for mental health discussed existed prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 has caused additional pressures on young people and adults. 

The authors make specific recommendations to support apprentices and students at colleges, university and in adult learning, as well as people in and out of work.

The important role of education, lifelong learning and good work in promoting mental wellbeing and reducing mental health problems is also addressed. 

Published by the Campaign for Learning, it brings together sixteen specialists from mental health and post-16 education and employment to set out what needs to be done to prevent or limit a mental health crisis in 2021. 

  • Sophie Corlett, Mind: Preventing a Mental Health Crisis    
  • Paul McDonald, Samaritans: Preventing Suicide and Self-Harm amongst 16-24-Year-Olds     
  • Lucy Thorpe, Mental Health Foundation: Meeting the Mental Health Challenge of Mass Youth and Adult Unemployment     
  • David Hughes, Association of Colleges: Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Post-16 College Students   
  • Liz Bromley, NCG: Improving Student Mental Health at NCG   
  • Anna Morrison, Amazing Apprenticeships: Protecting the Mental Health of Young and Adult Apprentices   
  • Amy Dicks, Universities UK: Creating a Whole University Approach to Mental Health      
  • Arlëne Hunter, The Open University: Supporting the Mental Health of Mature Higher Education Students   
  • Larissa Kennedy and Tiana Holgate, NUS: Grasping At The Root of the Student Mental Health Crisis 
  • Nick Bennett, Fika: Rebuilding Post-16 Education around Mental Fitness     
  • Jenny Sherrard, UCU: Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Post-16 Staff    
  • Elizabeth Taylor, ERSA and Richard Brooks, SETAS: Minimising the Mental Health Crisis through Job Creation and Employment    
  • Matthew Percival, CBI: Changing ‘Work for the Better’ through a New Focus on Mental Health   
  • Shelly Asquith, TUC: Organising to Reduce Workplace Stress   
  • Fiona Aldridge, Learning and Work Institute Preventing a Mental Health Crisis through ‘More Jobs’ and ‘Better Quality Jobs’   
  • Simon Parkinson, WEA: Tackling the Mental Health Crisis through Adult Learning 


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