Austerity and mental health

10 Apr , 2017  

By  -  
Mike is the co-editor of and host of Consented TV

The subject of mental wellbeing and mental health is becoming a part of many people’s day-to-day conversations as awareness around the topic is increased and the stigma around it is gradually removed. However, despite a greater understanding that mental health is just as important as physical health, one of the key causes of mental health problems is often overlooked and thus given a free pass: the state.

Since the start of the 2008 financial crisis until the present day, the UK has experienced what many economists would call a lost decade, much like Japan in the nineties. Headline figures about declining wages, rising prices and zero hour contracts have been well discussed, if not necessarily in the most genuine way, but the link between such brutal economic policies and the deterioration of many people’s mental health is almost never made. Yet should it really come as a surprise that as someone is forced to work longer hours, in an increasingly precarious job, for less money than before, that their mental health may begin to suffer or completely deteriorate? Now factor in that many of the people at the front line of these brutal measures are actually being blamed for the UK’s current demise and it should come as no surprise that austerity has been proven to affect Britain’s ethnic minority communities more than anyone else and that people in these communities also suffer from higher rates of mental health problems.

Lose your job and you’re likely to come under increased levels of stress; if that initial stress is exacerbated by poor employment opportunities and rising living costs it may just develop into something more serious; struggle to be adequately looked after by your underfunded and overstretched GP services and real issues may start to manifest themselves. It’s not hard to imagine why more and more people are seeking help regarding mental health issues nor it is difficult to ascertain why so many of these people are being failed by the system they helped build and pay for. In fact, demand for mental health services has risen by twenty per cent over the last five years – while mental health service budgets were cut by eight per cent in real terms.

Sadly, just when pressure was beginning to mount on the government in regards to many of its most inhumane policies, so often wrongly justified by austerity and the need to rebalance the budget, everything was turned on its head by last year’s referendum result. The economic and ideological experiment this country was put through by the last government should never be forgotten, yet there is a real risk that the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent bailout of the banking system, as well as the implementation of austerity, will not be held up as the reasons for the UK’s, and more broadly the West’s, current pandering to populist forces and the rise of xenophobia, racism and nationalism. This despite the fact that the state itself often reminds us of its mendacious nature, as was made clear when the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after their claims for employment and support allowance ended because a work capability assessment found that they were fit for work.

Surprised you didn’t know that aren’t you? Such facts seem like they should have garnered more attention, don’t they? Well it’s hard to keep up when you’re ruled by a state as proficient at generating these types of headlines, as David Brown’s suicide in October so painfully highlighted. Not only is the government responsible for the impoverishment of the nation and its worsening mental health, callus reforms, all in the name of missed economic targets, have directly led to the

deaths of thousands and who knows how many more have been pushed to the edge and beyond as a result? And there is a real danger that they will get away with it too because when David Cameron resigned last year many pundits, journalists and economists were quick to herald the end of austerity.

After more than six years as Prime Minister, initially as the head of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats and then as the first leader of a ruling Conservative majority in more than two decades, Cameron had overseen the most brutal economic policies since Margaret Thatcher’s first term in power. Little surprise then that many people were happy to see him go, as well as the removal of some of this most loyal followers, namely George Osborne. However, the idea that austerity is no longer in place simply because Theresa May is now Prime Minister and Philip Hammond is the Chancellor of the Exchequer is both incorrect and dangerous.

Whilst the macro economic rumblings of the latest incumbent of 10 Downing Street may appear to be more geared towards state backed fiscal stimulus and thus greater theoretical economic prosperity, no one, not even the government, is claiming that the latest round of quantitative easing will make up for the more than eight years of cuts to benefits, public sector redundancies and privatisations. Make no mistake, the NHS is still being privatised at the same terrifying rate as it was under the previous leadership and the UK’s precarious economic standing post-Brexit means that no one can really be certain of what economic policies will be implemented in the future. This means that if we are currently experiencing a mental health crisis, as some have suggested, the state is doing very little, other than changing the mantra it drawls out, to address the problem. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on David Cameron’s time in power in order to gauge the damage done to the nation because of his ideologically driven initiatives.

Last September the Office for National Statistics revealed that the British public sector had shed over one million jobs since September 2009 to just 5.332 million, the lowest level since comparable records began in 1999. This means that the growth of the public sector ushered in by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the New Labour era has been totally eradicated, with the proportion of people employed in the sector now comparable to that of John Mayor’s time in power. It goes without saying that the NHS was greatly affected by these cuts, despite pronouncements of ring fencing and spending on healthcare being kept in line with inflation, thanks to the ongoing process of privatisation via the backdoor.

It is no secret that private firms won £3.54 billion of the £9.628 billion worth of deals awarded in England in 2015 – a success rate of 36.8 per cent. That £3.54 billion worth of contracts is five times the £681 million the NHS Support Federation identified as going to the private sector the year before. It also represents a huge increase on the £205 million of contracts awarded in 2010-11, Cameron’s first year in power. Yet in spite of this free market free-for-all, mental health services for children and young people in England were cut by £35 million in 2015, whilst mental health beds have been reduced by eight per cent since 2010. At one point in 2014, there were no mental health beds available for adults in the whole of England, while an NSPCC survey published in October 2015 found that more than a fifth of children referred to child and adolescent mental health services in England were refused treatment.

For over a decade, from when Tony Blair came to power in 1997, until state employment reached its zenith in the autumn of 2009, employing 6.365 million people, the public sector created over one million new jobs, making it one of the key sources of employment in the UK. Yet now, not only is the state not hiring people, it is shedding jobs left, right and centre, forcing many of those discarded individuals to go and work for themselves or on a freelance basis.

In 1975 less than nine per cent of the workforce was self-employed and by 2008 that had only grown to around twelve per cent but since then it has surged closer to sixteen per cent – growing as much in the last seven years as it had in the three previous decades, and that pace looks set to continue. As a result, despite the severe shrinking of the state, the UK economy appears to be ticking over quite nicely, ostensibly at least; unemployment is at its lowest level in over a decade and the employment rate is at its highest point since records began in 1974.

However, ask any recent graduate about the employment opportunities available to them or the likelihood of them ever paying off their student loan (god forbid they studied a humanities) and you won’t get as nearly as rosy a response as the official figures would seem to indicate. It is no coincidence that since university tuition fees were tripled to £9,000 a year (they have since been allowed to increase again, this time to keep in line with inflation) the number of students seeking counselling at university has risen by 50 per cent and this trend persists even when an overall increase in student enrolment is taken into account.

In fact, such is the precarious nature of many employed people in the UK, Theresa May had to address the abhorrent inequalities present in British society in her first speech as Prime Minister. She acknowledged that many hard-working people are struggling to get by (now referred to as JAMs – Just About Managing) and that she would fight to make Britain a country that works for all, not just a privileged few. It is a sign of how badly things got under Cameron that his immediate successor, a key cabinet member of his government from the moment he took power, had to resort to populist messages of economic justice and the bashing of the elites in order to assuage voters.

Millions of people aren’t working for themselves because they are fulfilling the capitalist dream of becoming their own bosses but rather because the companies they work for pretend that they are freelance clients rather than the direct employees they really are. This is all done in order to save on things like national insurance payments, holiday pay and non-precarious pay packets and the direct consequences are declining incomes and worsening mental health.

The reality is that whilst the macro economic data for employment may seem positive, the UK economy, and most importantly the British people, are in a worse position now than they were before the start of crisis, despite years of austerity and so called fiscal pragmatism. Did people suffer from mental health problems before the start of the 2008 financial crisis? Of course. Have things gotten worse since the onset of austerity? Undeniably. Hopefully what this relatively brief summary shows is that you can’t talk about the worsening state of people’s mental health without acknowledging the role of the state. The NHS is still being privatised, people are still being forced to work precarious jobs and their mental health is still being neglected, regardless of what some politicians may say.

This article first appeared in the winter ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.

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