Poverty and mental ill health - How clever collaboration can treat both the roots and the symptoms of inequalities

In this co-authored piece, Aileen Evans, Grand Union Housing Group CEO and President of the Chartered Institute of Housing and Margaret Hanson, CEO of Imagine Independence, explore why partnerships are key to tackling the linked challenges of poverty and mental ill health.

We are all still living through the Covid-19 health emergency and though we can’t yet know the extent of the wider impacts, we do know that inequality gaps are widening and in-turn people’s mental wellbeing is deteriorating.

Research shows[i] that poverty increases the risk of mental health problems and can create a vicious cycle which feels impossible to break. Poverty can be both a cause and a result of mental illness. As people face an unstable job market and increasingly struggle to pay the bills, we know that more will sadly find themselves living below the poverty line. To illustrate this, at Grand Union Housing Group we have seen 1,000 more of our tenants move to claiming Universal Credit compared to the same period last year.

As respective specialists in our areas of health and social housing, we witness the undeniable link between poverty and mental ill health on a daily basis. We also know that with the right expert support and interventions, we can focus on solutions which prevent people reaching crisis points and more than that, empower many to not only survive but to thrive.

In the knowledge that increased need and complexity are coming, what can we do as the housing and voluntary sectors to pool our expertise and focus on solutions which could prevent a worsening of the mental health crisis which years of austerity has already exacerbated? We need to act now.

Housing associations like Grand Union often have a deeper understanding of neighbourhoods and communities than any other service. Our frontline teams speak to tenants every day and can often be dealing with people who are experiencing mental health crises or are showing signs of potential ill health in future. They also see the link between mental ill health and poverty. Poor mental health is often at the root of financial stress, rent arrears and anti-social behaviour. That is why we invested in Mental Health First Aid training and a range of other measures to support both our tenants and our colleagues, not just during the pandemic, but as an essential part of what we do. As a result, our colleagues are confident in being that ‘first line of defence’ for people showing signs of emotional distress and are practicing good self-care habits themselves in the face of challenging situations.

And whilst they are experts in supporting tenants to maintain the security of their tenancies or access employment and skills opportunities, they are not trained mental health workers. This is where specialists like Imagine Independence can bring in our expertise with proven solutions for recovery and prevention of mental ill health.

As we know that socio-economic issues increase people’s risks of mental ill health, Imagine works to support people to recover using a social model of support to promote recovery from mental illness.

But we also champion other initiatives like social prescribing, which is one way that we support people to live full and independent lives.

Social prescribing offers people help to connect with groups and community-based services, rather than offering clinical interventions for trauma and the impacts of disadvantage, which medicine can never resolve. It is a much more effective and acceptable way of promoting wellbeing and, therefore, preventing illness. For example, many of the people who use Imagine’s services tell us that activities like group exercise, photography, drama or volunteering, have helped them in maintaining their recovery from ill-health. And many of these activities have continued remotely during the pandemic.

You can see, then, how partnerships with housing associations could be effective, enabling housing providers to focus on homes and communities and third sector partners to respond with expert, holistic support to tackle other mental ill health risk factors. These sorts of agile partnerships can and will help to break the vicious cycle of poverty and mental ill health.

We have seen a marked difference in how people from all walks of life are opening up more about their mental wellbeing since the events of the past year. This is an opportunity to really talk about why mental health matters and the impact of poor mental health on every other aspect of someone’s life. These discussions can only be a positive advancement when it comes to tackling the internal and societal stigmas around mental illness.

Now, let’s see more investment and support for mental health initiatives and let’s collaborate to close the inequality gap and provide mental health support that works. By working together, we can affect real change.




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