The Blog

Hurting Our Mental Health: Austerity's Collateral Damage

Stress, anxiety and depression have reached crisis levels in the UK - an indirect result of growing job and financial insecurity for individuals and families. Tacking this problem requires a holistic approach, employing both preventative measures to reduce the number of cases of mental illness, and support systems to ensure that sufferers are given the help they need. Many don't realise the role that the EU can play to help.

Last year I was given the honour of being made Patron of the Tyneside and Northumberland branch of Mind, and I have worked hard to use my influence to give a voice to people with mental health concerns and those supporting them, to ensure that mental health is considered a top priority for policy makers at both a national and a European level.

Tackling unemployment is key. People with serious mental health illness regularly tell me that working is central to their recovery, with those in paid employment more than five times more likely to achieve functional remission than people that are unemployed or in unpaid employment. As diagnosis normally occurs at working age (15-35), programmes such as Individual Placement Support, which provide specifically tailored employment support to people with mental health problems, can prove highly effective. However support is limited and adults in contact with secondary mental health services are 250 times less likely to be in work than the general population, making up just 5.7% of the total UK workforce.

Having a job, and the structure and financial security it provides, is for many the defining factor in their levels of happiness and wellbeing. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2011 found unemployment to have a major and lasting effect on a person's mental health and to be one of the few life events that can permanently lower a person's baseline level of life satisfaction. Unemployed men in the UK are twice as likely to see a GP for depression and anxiety than those in work, and studies have shown that their risk of suicide is doubled. Unemployed men are ten times more likely to attempt taking their own life.

These figures are extremely worrying, particularly for areas such as my North East constituency, which suffers from the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country. This is why creating jobs is one of my top concerns as MEP. It's why I have been pushing so hard to ensure that EU funding reaches the local areas that need it most, to support businesses, secure more jobs and give a vital boost to the local economy.

But reducing levels of mental health in the UK is not simply a case of increasing employment - the jobs on offer need to be quality jobs, at the very least providing financial security, contracted hours and fair terms and conditions. A powerful new book on 'How politics makes us sick', currently in its pre-publishing stage, makes the link between flexible and precarious employment - where employees are on temporary contracts, or have no contract at all - and increased stress levels and ill-health among employees. This type of work - frequently characterised by a combination of heavy working demands and low levels of employee control - is on the rise: 1.4million UK workers were on so-called 'zero-hours' contracts in 2014.

Groups such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have called for increased measures to develop local support groups for unemployed people and for those suffering from mental health problems. Home-Start Seaham in the North East, for example, is a small grassroots organisation whose volunteers last week told me about how their service bridges the gap between social work and legal advice for local families struggling to cope. Volunteers make weekly visits into people's homes and provide specially tailored emotional and practical support and guidance on matters including parenting, basic legal problems, welfare and schools. Key to the success of this vital service is the trust between parents and their support workers - receiving help from a regular friendly face enables these vulnerable families to work through daily challenges that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

Sadly, Home-Start Seaham's future hangs in the balance as a lack of funding is putting this carefully created and maintained trust at risk. Previously, funds to a large extent were provided by local authorities, however steep cuts to Local Government budgets under the Coalition government have forced locally-run services to look elsewhere in order to stay afloat.

It is here that EU funds could play a crucial role. The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) will allocate £724million worth of EU funding between 2014-20, including support for mental health services. It is vital that these funds reach organisations such as Home-Start, whose local expertise make it best placed to meet the need on the ground. There will be a temptation for the Department of Communities and Local Government to opt for national providers of services to roll out this EU money, but in order to tackle mental health and unemployment in the North East it is locally embedded projects which have the best success.

It's important to talk about mental health but crucial to actively support those who are delivering support services in their communities.

Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for North East of England