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Anxiety nation: Britain’s epidemic of mental health problems and rampant economic insecurity

Amid rocketing rates of diagnosis for anxiety, and with 7.3 million English adults already having received antidepressants by 2017-18, a new report called Anxiety Nation? Economic insecurity and mental distress in 2020s Britain. from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launching today (Thursday 10 November) establishes many connections between financial insecurity and poor mental health.

It is calling for more to be done to protect all those millions of Britons, and not just those on the very lowest incomes, who are feeling exposed, at a time of rocketing prices and interest rates.

Reforms to rental and employment laws which JRF has long called for could, on the strength of the new report’s findings, bolster not only financial security but might also begin to address the mental health problems which cost the health service around £15bn a year, and the wider economy an estimated £100bn plus.

Concentrating on data from just before the pandemic and current cost of living crisis, the JRF looked at 12 important indicators of mental health and well-being from a large nationwide survey:

  • Renters are at least twice as likely as homeowners to report losing sleep, feeling under strain or depressed, and also at far greater risk of lacking both energy and calm in their lives.
  • People with less than £1,000 in the bank were around twice as likely to admit to taking less care with work or other tasks or to report that their social life was suffering than those with £5,000 or more.
  • People employed in insecure ways such as zero-hours contracts have poorer mental health than secure workers.

The report also underlined the close connection between antidepressants prescriptions and local economic exposure:

  • All 10 of the English communities with the highest prescription rates are in the north including Blackpool and Middlesborough which consistently rank among the most deprived areas in England.
  • Overall, the number of antidepressant prescriptions is about twice as high in the most-deprived 10th parts of England as in the least-deprived 10th, and this differential is even more marked in prescriptions of drugs used to treat more severe conditions, such as psychosis.

Taken together, the OECD numbers on people who are either on a very low income (and so automatically exposed to any economic shock) with the OECD’s tally of those whose low savings put them at risk of falling into poverty,  the JRF report suggests that Britain has more economic insecurity than Italy, France or Germany, although less than the USA.

Factoring in the extremely low rate of British unemployment benefits further darkens the picture.

Two major 21st Century trends have exacerbated our insecurity problem. First, a “swing” of around 10 percentage points of the whole working-age population out of homebuying and into a private rentals, in a market where rents are uncapped and insecurity of tenure is rife. Second, a growth since the dawn of the financial crisis, of between four and eight percentage points depending on the data-set used, in the proportion of households classed as having no savings at all.

In the short term, these findings make clear the Government should use the fiscal statement next week to bring true stability to lives which are currently being lived on shifting sands. Without clear, consistent action this will be an anxious winter followed by extremely lean years for many on low or even middle incomes.

Tom Clark, JRF Fellow and Journalist, who authored the report, said:

“This report picks up on a rising sense of insecurity in Britain today. It interrogates the potential connection between the shaky foundations of material life for many of our citizens and burgeoning signs that a growing anxiety problem is gripping the country.

“Too many people are caught up in a vicious cycle in which mental distress impedes confidence, leading to problems at work, which can in turn lead to issues with debt, housing and even relationships, leading to still more worry.

“While more analytical work is needed, what’s already clear is that the UK has big, and on many measures, growing problems with both material insecurity and mental distress, and that the two very much seem to be linked.

“The Government needs to wake up to the reality of the twin problems of insecurity and anxiety, which are doing great harm to both national economic well-fare and individual well-being

The full report, “Anxiety Nation?: Economic insecurity and mental distress in 2020s Britain” by Tom Clark and Andrew Wenham is attached Anxiety nation – Economic insecurity and mental distress in 2020s Britain.pdf

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