Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Energy package is a relief but more is needed to prevent a mental health crisis

8 September 2022

* Since publishing this blog, the government has announced a change to its support plans, which will be reviewed early next year.

The Prime Minister’s announcement this morning of a £2,500 energy price cap for a typical household will be huge relief for millions of people. Without that commitment, people were facing a jump in their energy bills of 80% from October, with projections suggesting average costs would tip over £5,000 next year. This new price cap should avoid a catastrophe over the next two years.* But despite this, more action is needed to ensure people on the lowest incomes aren’t forced to go without essentials this winter and beyond. Without that, the risk remains that the cost of living crisis will snowball into a mental health crisis.

Millions already struggling, mentally and financially

For many of us, struggling to keep up with the cost of living isn’t a future disaster to be averted, it’s already here. We commissioned national polling in May, just after the current energy price cap of nearly £2,000 had been introduced. Even then, the majority of us said rising prices had negatively affected our mental health – with one in five feeling unable to cope. And as is so often the case, financial hardship and poor mental health form a toxic cycle. The drastic money-saving responses people have been forced into – skipping meals, not using hot water, missing medical appointments to save on travel costs – are only likely to worsen people’s mental health.

“I can’t sleep at night for worrying, I keep crying and wonder how I’ll manage to keep going. I’m staying in bed a lot more, even though I’m not sleeping, as I’m scared to go out and spend money, and scared to heat the flat when it’s cold.” Expert by experience

What else needs to happen now?

As the Prime Minister’s first speech on the rain-soaked steps of Downing Street acknowledged, making sure people can get the treatment they need from the NHS is a massive, urgent challenge. Wraparound support for families’ budgets and mental health now won’t solve that, but it could reduce the demand that would result from more and more people struggling. In comparison to the eye-watering sums needed to cap energy prices, there are a number of cheap and pretty quick fixes that could make a real difference.

It is vital that families are able to get all the help that’s available to them. While people often hold back on reaching out for help with their finances or debts, advice on maximising your income through the welfare system, grants and social tariffs can ease some of the pressure on household budgets and mental health. The funding needed to offer more income maximisation could be dwarfed by the benefit to those helped.

Additional support will still be targeted at those who are on the lowest incomes, as was announced under the previous government. But there are some techy but meaningful tweaks that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions could implement to protect people with mental health problems who receive benefits this winter. With 2.6 million households still needing to move from ‘legacy’ benefits to Universal Credit (UC), there is a risk that without a better process they could fall through the cracks between the two systems and have their incomes cut off. We’ll be publishing a more detailed paper on this soon, but improved communication and positive messaging from the DWP would make a huge difference. 

For people already receiving UC, there is a window of opportunity now to ensure those who need help managing their account can get it from a trusted friend or family member. While the DWP has acknowledged how difficult it can be, progress has been stop-start. With a new set of Ministers in place, now is the time to get all the quick wins it can and deliver for some of the most vulnerable claimants.

Finally, it’s vital this new administration continues the promising work of its predecessor on mental health. Taking forward the 10-year plan on mental health and a white paper on health inequalities are ideal chances to support people in this difficult moment. And in light of the links between debt and people taking their own lives, the update to the suicide prevention prevention for the first time in a decade is also more pressing than ever. 

Following through with this broader package should mean that the sense of relief that millions of us are feeling today is felt for that bit longer.