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Cutting social security benefits such as universal credit has a detrimental effect on mental health, particularly for the most vulnerable groups hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new research.
The study of major welfare reforms in high-income countries including the UK, the US and Canada also found that policies aimed at making benefits more generous were associated with positive mental health outcomes.
The authors of the study said making permanent beyond April the 12-month, £20-a-week Covid top-up to universal credit – and extending the boost to claimants on other benefits – would help prevent a decline in the mental health of the least well-off.
“Our research suggests that the current increase to universal credit of £20 a week should be maintained in order to protect the mental health of the most vulnerable in our society,” said the report’s co-author, Prof Clare Bambra, of Newcastle University.
The study, believed to be the first of its kind, comes amid increasing concern over the adequacy of the UK’s unemployment support. Austerity cuts have stripped £37bn from benefits over the past decade, while removing the £20 top-up would shrink out-of-work help to 1991 levels, according to the Resolution Foundation.
At the same time, millions more people will need new or additional mental health support as a result of Covid pressures. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said the virus and its economic and social consequences pose the biggest threat to the nation’s mental health since the second world war.
Ministers have put off a decision on whether to retain the £20 top-up until the March budget, amid widespread calls for it to be retained. Those insisting it be made permanent include growing numbers of Tory backbench MPs.
The Newcastle report analysed 38 academic studies carried out over the past three decades to assess whether policy changes and reforms to welfare systems had an impact on the mental health of adults and children.
Of 21 papers examining increases to benefit generosity, 14 found positive mental health outcomes. Of the 17 looking at reductions in the value or access to benefits, 11 discovered adverse mental health impacts, with only two finding positive effects.
Those studies that looked at the differential impact of social security reforms between population subgroups found that benefit cuts disproportionately affected the mental health of the least well-off, while expansionary policies reduced inequalities.
Benefit increases aimed at helping families with dependent children had a positive mental health impact, the report found. Of six studies evaluating child benefits, four linked welfare increases with improved child or maternal mental health or both.
Julija Simpson, another co-author of the paper, said: “When countries are developing evidence-based social security policies, they need to ensure that the mental health impacts are fully considered, so that future policies promote, or at least do not harm, the mental health of some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.”
A government spokesperson said: “This government has always been committed to supporting the most vulnerable and targeting support to those in greatest need, including boosting welfare support by billions and investing at least £2.3bn of extra funding a year in mental health services by 2023-24.”
A Liverpool University study last year linked universal credit – with its panoply of “stressors”, such as the five-week wait for a first payment – to increased psychological distress. A separate 2018 study of universal credit in Gateshead found it a “threat to public health” because it triggered such high levels of anxiety and depression.
Gateshead council’s director of public health, Alice Wiseman, said the Newcastle research reinforced the findings of the 2018 study. “It provides compelling evidence pointing to the need for a compassionate system of welfare support that ensures everyone has the chance of a healthy standard of living.”
Sophie Corlett of the mental health charity Mind said: “When a social security system works, it can help reduce inequality, improve mental health and keep people afloat, allowing people to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, the current benefit system in the UK is having a detrimental impact on some people’s mental health.”
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