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OPINION: Pandemic's impact on mental health has been devastating

by Sarah-Jayne Dunn, CAS Financial Health policy manager.

This article was first published in the Herald on 16 September 2020.

Poor mental health and money problems go hand in hand. I’ve been a money adviser in Scotland for over 10 years, and in that time I’ve routinely met with clients who not only faced an uphill struggle with their debt but a downward spiral with their mental health.

I remember one particular client, who for the sake of anonymity I’ll call Mary. Due to her limited income, Mary felt the constant stress of worrying how she was going to feed and clothe her children. This anxiety kept her up at night, till eventually she lost her job as the mental strain affected her ability to concentrate on her work. As a result, Mary’s bills started piling up and the demands from her creditors caused her worries to spiral further. Not knowing where to turn or even how to ask for help, Mary felt she had no other option but to attempt to take her own life.

Fortunately for Mary she survived suicide and was pointed in the direction of her local Citizens Advice Bureau for support.

However, her journey wasn’t over. For Mary, and countless others like her, the stigma of money and debt problems, compounded with the stigma of poor mental health, meant she struggled to open up and acknowledge her financial problems, as well as the impact this was having on her emotional wellbeing. 

As a money adviser, I constantly felt my job was more than just creating a budget sheet and negotiating with creditors on behalf of clients like Mary. I became an emotional support system, as much as a financial aid. In Australia, debt advisers are called “financial counsellors” and to me, this term is a far better description.

Even before the pandemic, many people in Scotland were facing financial distress. With over a decade of stagnant wage increases, a changing job market introducing a gig economy, an ever-growing cost of living and slashes to the welfare state have led to many Scottish households struggling to make ends meet. As shown in Mary’s case, this can lead to anxiety, increased stress levels, depression and even suicide.

And then this year saw one of the biggest economic shocks to the global economy. Covid-19 not only attacked the respiratory system of our physical health but also the respiratory system of our financial wellbeing, posing real risks to mental health.

A recent survey for CAS found that one in five people are concerned about losing their home as a result of falling behind on their rent or mortgage payments – 22 per cent are concerned about affording their utility bills and 27% are concerned about their debt repayments, while 38% surveyed showed real concern about their incomes. For some, these kinds of worries can easily trigger problems for mental health.

Think about the path that people who suffer an income shock can go down. It’s a path of stress. Job loss, reorganising household budgets, finding money to pay for food, clothing, heating and a roof over your head, borrowing money, getting into arrears, creditors chasing you, feeling helpless and drowning in debt. It’s not hard to see how the Marys of this world are driven to the deepest levels of despair.

Covid-19 has created a massive financial shock for households across Scotland. Whilst the blow has been softened for many by government support initiatives like the furlough scheme and by lenders offering payment holidays, the concern must be that these have merely masked a bigger problem to come.

When these measures come to an end, we will see large-scale job losses or reduced hours creating severe financial problems for many, including those households who were “just about managing” before the pandemic being plunged into crisis. I worry about the impact this will have on the mental health of those families.

A recent report from the Mental Health Foundation revealed that, of those who have been made unemployed by the pandemic, one in five have had suicidal thoughts and almost half have worried about not having enough food for their families.

The Scottish Government has set up a number of advisory groups, such as the National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group, to help with the recovery process of Covid-19.

Each group has been tasked with considering an individual issue, including suicide prevention, financial health and mental health. As a result, each group tends to work in its individual silo and whilst this may be necessary for certain topics, money problems and mental health need to be tackled together.

Mary’s story is already a reality for thousands of households across Scotland and money advisers are quickly becoming the fifth emergency service for people who are in financial/mental health crisis.

Improving Scotland’s mental health depends upon understanding this crucial link and finding ways to support those who are going through the misery of these dual problems.