The psychological cost of inequality

Inequality is at a record high in Britain, and it's costing us our happiness.

Inequality is at a record high in Britain, and it’s costing us our happiness

Yesterday’s damning report into child and adolescent mental health services found ‘serious and deeply ingrained problems’ running through the whole system.

The Health Select Committee found that while the demand for mental health services for young people is rising, many CCGs have frozen or cut their budgets.

It also said that those running the services had been operating in a ‘fog’.

As well as demanding reforms in this deeply deficient area of healthcare, the report highlighted the increasing incidence of mental health problems in children and teenagers.

It cited the rise in internet culture as a possible contributing factor to this increase – there has yet to be a comprehensive investigation into the widespread effects of issues like online bullying.

But the increase could also reflect wider issues. In 2009, the World Health Organisation published a report into the relationship between mental health and inequality. It found that countries with wide gaps between rich and poor had higher rates of mental health problems. The study suggested that, in contrast with studies of physical morbidity and mortality, mental illness rates tend to increase as countries get richer.

There are many possible reasons for this. One is that mental health problems are secondary in urgency to physical health problems which can come about as a result of extreme poverty, and so may be given less gravitas in a community.

Furthermore, it is hard to reach exhaustive conclusions. In India, for example, inequality is colossal but stigma, lack of awareness and lack of existing facilities affect the recorded demand for mental health services.

But in countries where mental health problems are well understood, we can draw certain conclusions. An assessment by Credit Suisse in October showed that Britain is the only G7 country where inequality has increased since the beginning of the century, with 54.1 per cent of the country’s wealth now controlled by the richest 10 per cent. That is higher than the rate in Sweden, where there is a much lower rate of mental health problems.

The earlier WHO report also noted this comparison, including data which showed that:

”In Britain it is very evident that some of the poorest people feel abused and disrespected by public provision and are hurt by the manner in which they are characterized by the tabloid press. Not only do they get less welfare than their Swedish counterparts, but they receive it in a context that is often dehumanizing and unpleasant.”

According to the social geographer Danny Dorling, 13.6 per cent of white Americans are prescribed antidepressants in any given year.* Income inequality in the US has risen in recent years.

There are myriad reasons for this link. Mental health problems are more common in areas of deprivation, and poor mental health is consistently associated with unemployment, fewer education opportunities, low income or material standard of living. Feelings of despondency and hopelessness, and anger at being stuck in an unfair system, can occur as a result of economic hardship and contribute to a lower level of mental wellbeing.

Spain was recently rated as having the worst inequality problem in Europe in a study by the Catholic charity Caritas, which found that 20 per cent of Spanish society is now seven-and-a-half-times richer than the bottom fifth. The charity suggested that these economic problems “produced a weakening of family ties and other safety nets”, factors which can impact emotional wellbeing.

It is not just those at the bottom end of the earnings scale who are psychologically affected by inequality. Dorling suggests that well-off people tend to bear more responsibility for promoting thinking that is used to defend inequality, and this “makes them so much more likely to be sick, especially psychologically, than the better-off in more equitable countries”.

There is also some evidence, cited by the WHO report (p.20), that social disparity itself may lead to mental health issues – it found that the overall sense of well-being could be affected by trust within the population, civic engagement and volunteering, and social integration.

Whatever the reasons for the link, it must be taken into account with the findings of the CAMHS report. The Equality Trust conducted research this year that estimated that if Britain’s inequality rate was reduced to  the average level seen in developed OECD countries, mental health illness rates could be reduced by 5 per cent, at a value of £25 billion.

That’s more money to spend on mental health treatment for some of the children and adolescents whose problems may not have been preventable.

* Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1% (2014), p.131.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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7 Responses to “The psychological cost of inequality”

  1. littleoddsandpieces

    Even Mao warned against too much equality.

    Inequality is not the issue for all ages today.

    The poor do not worry all day about the rich.

    The poor suffer from fear of not having bread on the table from day to day.

    Worry about being enslaved in Workfare for 6 months without pay, yet benefit sanctioned and hungry, of all ages, even over 60.

    Stress due to the age old fear of penniless famine.

    And the grandparents of the young face such a future from pension reform leaving them with nil state pension for life, for many their sole income in old age
    for women born from 1953 and men born from 1951, from 2016

    Stress causes psychological injury and then mental collapse.

    The benefit system could not be better designed to cause maximum such stress, when benefit is the sole income, or low wages need benefit to bring to anything like a living wage.

    The poorest 20 per cent of all ages have had a higher inflation in energy bills and food prices than the richest 20 per cent.

    The bulk of those going to food banks are in work.

    Worry when work on low wages yet unable to afford the food being passed through the checkout.

    Money worries are the biggest reason for suicide.

    The young face equally with all ages even at 60 and over and state pension denied, starvation from the 70 per cent rise in benefit sanctions.

    And the young face losing their support system of parents and grandparents being in the same money worries as themselves for any conceivable future and maybe for the rest of their lives.

  2. V Hale

    The Spirit Level has been thoroughly debunked. That said, the ‘therapy’ culture of modern years, with child psychologists round every corner and therapists recommended for all clearly aren’t doing children any good. Years of “child-centred” psychology seems to actually be having a deleterious effect on mental health rather than the improvement it promised. Time to chuck the left wing “professionals” out the door, I feel.

  3. Jason

    Could you give an example of where are there child psychologists round every corner? They’ve cut the funding to the couple that are left round our way. Unless the child is having a complete breakdown there is no help. As for the Spirit Level – it has been questioned and yes it is complex, but the central idea – more equal countries have better outcomes – remains solid. We now live in a country more unequal than any time in the past 100 years, in a world where the super-rich command more wealth than at any time in history. How is the amassing of wealth by a few not associated with levels of poverty?

  4. Sandra Lee

    I think that many people really need help, but they do not want it. The main reason is that they just do not think about this and do not see their problems. However I believe that you may find a problem and start to change the situation for your own. The reason for increasing bad mood and further problems is in the way of living we all have to lead. Many people believe they must be he first and buy the best thigs, but this does not bring them happines. Otherwise people who need help from payday lenders online to solve their monetary problems can be more independent on such expensive purchases, and as a result more psychological healthy.

  5. Coert

    The Spirit Level has been thoroughly debunked? Were and how was that done?

  6. Guest

    Ah yes, throw out protecting kids, and just let them work.

  7. Guest

    What on earth do a hamas-supporting site have to say that’s useful on this?

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