Kiri Saunders, External Communications Manager, Christians Against Poverty

Beyond a label: taking a broader view of mental health, debt and vulnerability

4 April 2019

As a national debt counselling charity, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) visits thousands of homes each year to help people out of the grip of poverty and debt. We have found that debt problems rarely happen in isolation – they affect and infiltrate every area of life; relationships, employment status, physical and mental health and much more.

To effectively identify and offer support to people in need, it is key to understand what vulnerability means in real people’s lives. That’s why we recently released our new report, Stacked Against. This research seeks to understand these issues by going beyond the ‘vulnerability’ label, and taking an all-encompassing view of how household circumstances, ill-health, disability and personal difficulties create vulnerability.

The report identifies 14 of the most common vulnerabilities our clients face, and uses data and real life stories to paint a picture of how each of these factors interacts with the others to create situations in which vulnerability is intensified. We found that mental health problems are the most prevalent vulnerability factor amongst the people we help, affecting almost half (46%) of the households we visit.

A closer look

Often caused or exacerbated by financial crisis, mental ill-health has a whole range of emotional and physical symptoms that can impact people in numerous ways. Sadly, our research shows that for those people in financial difficulty who are struggling with mental health problems, there are even more circumstances stacking up against them:

  • Unemployment
    Our research found that mental ill-health is most strongly associated with unemployment, with one in two (52%) households affected by mental health problems also facing unemployment. People out of work for a long time often lose confidence and self-worth, which in turn can exacerbate existing mental health challenges. And for many people with mental health problems, claiming out of work benefits is no easy task, as research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute shows.
  • Physical disability
    We also found that more than one in three (38%) households affected by mental health problems also had a physical disability. Struggling both with physical and mental ill-health can be paralysing, with many obstacles making life much harder to navigate.
  • Victim of abuse
    Those who have previously been a victim of abuse were twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems. 24% of those with mental health problems had been a victim of abuse, compared to 11% of those who did not

Beyond the ‘vulnerability’ label

The issues explored by our report are well illustrated by the case of CAP client Tina. Tina found herself in one abusive relationship after another. Combined with her debt situation, the effects of this exacerbated her mental health problems and pushed her to breaking point.

‘When I finally approached CAP for help with my debts I was depressed, self-harming and vulnerable. I had been that way for far too long. I was on suicide watch. I had no money. I was visiting the foodbank as often as I could. I didn’t even have enough money in my bank to buy a pint of milk.

I’ve had depression since I was a kid. I had never known why but after some counselling I came to the realisation that it was because I had been abused as a child. Abuse and domestic violence have followed me all my life, in one form or another. I didn’t know what a normal relationship looked like.’ – Tina

By delving deeper and looking more broadly, we can better understand vulnerability as a dynamic spectrum that encompasses a wide range of situations. This in turn can help ensure people like Tina receive  the right support, and can reach positive outcomes.

‘Not once has any person from CAP said, “This is your doing, this is what you’ve done”. Every step has lifted me a little bit further. It’s so nice to get up in the morning and see sunlight instead of a dark room. Without them and the support of everyone else, I would not be debt free. I would not be here.’ – Tina