Social disadvantage and inequality tug at the very fabric of what makes society functional. It is time to reflect this in our conversation about mental ill health
First published on 20/5/2018 by The Independent during Mental Health Awareness week. Republished here on World Mental Health Day (Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash)
Annabel Head and Jessica Bond
In 2018, mental health and psychological distress are high on the agenda. And this is great progress. The increased awareness of mental health issues and the willingness to discuss them that we are currently seeing is vital. It keeps pressure on policymakers to fulfil their promise to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health.
To really make a difference, though, we need to take the conversation to the next level – to raise a different kind of awareness that leads to a different kind of action. Awareness about the root causes of psychological distress. We need to spread the message that the society and communities we live in and the way they are organised by social, political and economic forces play a significant role in our wellbeing. We need that message to become part of the conversation around mental health so that the ideas are built into the heart of all of our society’s policies, not viewed as only relevant to NHS mental health services.
The case for the role that social, economic and environmental factors play in mental health and distress is robust. Psychological distress (often categorised as “mental disorders” and other terms we, as psychologists, are not always comfortable with) is not distributed equally across society. People lower down the socioeconomic ladder suffer more mental distress than those higher up, with the gradient particularly pronounced for women. Inequality is also associated with poorer wellbeing for those at the sharp end.
Multiple studies have shown a link between low socioeconomic position and increased rates of depression and anxiety. Debt and having a poor-quality job – such as those with zero-hour contracts or where there is little control or reward to be had – are risk factors for experiencing distress.
Unemployment is associated with a higher risk of suicide. Similarly, poor quality or overcrowded housing is linked to poorer mental health in adults and is worse for children’s educational and health outcomes. Living in a neighbourhood blighted by violence or with a high crime rate is associated with trauma. Those experiencing oppression through living in communities in which there are high levels of racial inequality and discrimination are more likely to feel distressed.
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