Only half of 25-54 year olds with a longstanding mental health problem are in work compared with nearly 90% of the rest of the population. Those with a mental health problem who are in work, earn on average 23% less per week than the rest of the population. Four in ten people with mental health problems are in poverty, more than double the national rate.
These are the headline findings from a new report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) which looks at the scale of inequality in our nation today. The report paints a picture of a country scarred by financial inequality, and deep injustice in terms of distribution of assets, power and opportunities. We remain a country where a young person’s chance of fulfilling their potential rests on the vagaries of where they were born and what their parents do, rather than their innate talent and ambition.
Specifically, the report highlights the shameful links between poor mental health and poverty amongst 25-54 year olds. A generation of working-age people, at the peak of their potential, is being written off because of mental ill-health. This is not just a personal tragedy. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, we need to become more efficient as an economy. We need everyone contributing to our collective prosperity, in every part of the country. We simply cannot afford to waste the potential of a generation because of mental ill-health.
This presents a real challenge for policy-makers. In the short term, there are immediate things that can be done to alleviate the pressure on people with mental illness. For example, during the recent passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Act, I joined a cross-party effort to introduce a ‘breathing space’ for people with mental illness who have got into debt. There is clear evidence that people with mental illness are more likely to get into debt, and that the pressures from creditors make people’s conditions even worse. So now, creditors must back off for a period to ease the stress on people with mental illness. This was a small but significant victory for common sense.
Another small but significant issue is the disparity across the country as to whether GPs charge patients for the Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form (DMHEF). Some make a financial charge to issue this important form, to people in debt for whom every penny counts. This is plainly unjust and counter-productive, and GPs should stop charging. With these small steps we can remove unnecessary pressures, correct injustices, and makes things a little better for people under pressure.
But the bigger picture is that we need to engage people with mental illness in the world of work. Getting people into work is shown to improve a person’s mental health, as well as being good for the economy. So we need a renewed effort from Ministers to create training, support and access schemes for people with mental illness. We need employers to have an open mind about people with mental illness, and be willing to employ people, with the right support. Most of all, we need to end the stigma, and challenge the Victorian notion that people with mental illness should be shut away, taken out of society, and isolated. We can no longer blight a generation.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree and president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health