How the cost of living can impact mental health, and ways to limit its effects
Tips & tricks by Ufuoma Onemu
The cost-of-living crisis is taking its toll on all of us right now. Ufuoma Onemu highlights the ways in which it can affect us, and what we can do to help ourselves.
In October 2022, the United Kingdom recorded its highest inflation rate since 1981 which, when coupled with stagnating salaries and wages that are outstripped by rapidly ballooning prices of essential goods and services, has led to a cost-of-living crisis the likes of which hasn’t been seen for decades. Basic amenities have become luxuries, with many now struggling to buy food for their families while paying sky-high prices for gas needed to cook and to heat their homes. And economic gaps are widening daily.
The effects of the cost-of-living crisis aren’t just physical. Mental health and financial stability have a strong vice-versa relationship. People living in poverty or those who have experienced significant financial losses often experience poor mental health, such as feeling lost, hopeless, depressed, and anxious, while poor finances and debt issues have been linked to suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol addiction, and relationship issues. Similarly, people living with mental health conditions may go through financial difficulties because they are unable to work and may end up in poverty.
The result of this relationship is a vicious cycle. Rising costs of living can drive someone into a state of poor mental health, which in turn can increase their risk of getting into further financial problems.
Physical health and food insecurity
In a 2022 survey, 55% of participants said that their health had been negatively affected by the increasing costs of living. This could be for a number of reasons, including skipping important medication refills or hospital stays as a way of keeping costs down, meaning people are missing out on essential healthcare.
Alternatively, dramatic changes to diet can affect a person’s health. According to Citizens Advice, food banks have seen a 54.5% increase in demand. When put in the context of food insecurity – which is linked with health issues like obesity, diabetes, and cancer caused by diets heavy in high-energy and low-nutrient foods – higher food bank demand provides compelling reasoning why the cost-of-living crisis leads to physical health issues.
Housing can be a strong influence on mental health. In fact, housing problems are a common reason why people with mental health conditions are admitted or readmitted into inpatient care. Often, they live in subpar housing in difficult areas which commonly sport numerous issues such as mold and damp.
With costs skyrocketing, most people worry about affording rent, their mortgage payments, and how long they can afford to live in their present homes. Joint research by the National Housing Federation and the NHS Confederation revealed that people living with mental health disorders were 1.5-times more likely to live in rented homes than the general population due to a heightened uncertainty about how long they can keep living in their present homes. Additionally, they reported present living conditions as an exacerbating factor for their health and were more likely to be unhappy with where they lived.
Other research into the link between housing and mental health has revealed:
Depression and anxiety were 3-times more common among children who had lived in temporary accommodation for more than a year
Women are more affected by poor housing and living conditions than men – 10% of mothers living in very poor housing conditions were clinically depressed
Homeless people are 2-times more likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions than the rest of the population
About 33% of people reported housing costs as a cause of depression and stress while 25% stated the stress of making mortgage or rent payments kept them up at night
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Reducing the mental impact of the cost-of-living crisis
With all this in mind, what can we do to protect our mental health during a cost-of-living crisis? Here are some tips.
Step away from the news
News keeps you in the know about what's happening. But too much of it can affect your mental health, especially when it's negative. New policies, political events, and other events out of your control can enhance the feeling of uncertainty, helplessness, and anxiety you are already feeling. Be aware of your mood and emotions when browsing online or listening to news and if it all starts to feel overwhelming, take a step back.
Have some "you" time
During times of financial struggles, it's easy to forget to care for yourself. There are a million and one things to do and so much to worry about. But take a little time to step back and care for yourself. Take a relaxing bath, wash your hair, have a little snack, or just find a quiet place to sit for a moment. Remember, nothing works without you.
Spend time outdoors
Basking in the sun at your favourite park or even in your backyard can provide a much-needed reprieve from the stress of daily living. Throw a ball around with your pet, siblings, or kids. Or you can take a long, relaxing walk.
Focus on things under your control
Uncertainty exacerbates feelings of helplessness, especially when faced with things you can't control. You feel like there's really nothing you can do to make things better. Try switching your focus to things you can control, like taking a bath, doing the laundry, or contacting your office or government offices for aid options.
People can handle one stressful thing, but when stressors begin to accumulate, that's what puts people over the edge. For more tips on how to limit the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on your mental health, visit the Mental Health Foundation’s resources page here.