Guest blogger: Charlotte Killeya, volunteer and trustee at Parson Cross Initiative Projects 

Food banks, scarcity and mental health

“The food bank doesn’t just give out food, you help in other ways”

Sarah* said this to me while she was waiting for a Department of Work and Pensions advisor to answer the telephone. There had been an error in Sarah’s benefit claim and she was trying to manage on less money. She had been on hold for thirty minutes. Sarah had called them earlier that day, but she couldn’t face calling them again on her own. She wanted me, a food bank volunteer, to sit with her while she made the call.

Sarah was under enormous financial pressure: she had rent arrears, owed money to utility companies and she was regularly missing meals. We chatted and even joked about how fed up she was of hearing the same music played over and over again on the other end of the phone – surely the DWP could choose something else to play?

The call was finally answered. Sarah started to explain her situation to the advisor. She froze and started to cry. She couldn’t take in the information they were giving her. She passed the phone onto me. Could I talk to the advisor? I explained that due to the error on Sarah’s claim she hadn’t enough money to feed herself and she was accruing debt at an alarming rate. I was told that they would look into her claim and get back in touch. Sarah had been suffering from depression and anxiety for years, but this situation was making things worse.

Sarah’s is not an unusual story

It’s a story that many people working in food banks will be all too familiar with. In 2016, 7% of the food parcels we gave out were primarily due to people experiencing mental health issues. This percentage is based on the reason agencies gave us on referral forms. However, when we listen to the people we help, we believe that this figure is much higher.

Before visiting us people will have tried many other ways to cope. This might mean getting into debt, borrowing money from family and friends or frequently going without food. Those visiting us often describe feelings of shame and embarrassment that they can’t afford to feed themselves and their families, which has a real impact on their mental health – we are the last resort.

In 2016, over a third of referrals were due to a problem with benefits. Benefit delays, sanctions or a change in circumstance often mean that people are left without an income, sometimes for weeks on end. Other reasons include ‘low income’ where people simply do not have enough money coming into the household to cover bills, often following redundancy, illness or bereavement. The referral form might state that a food parcel is needed due to a ‘benefit sanction’, for example, but it is only when we listen to people that we find a much more complex set of reasons.

It is not just scarcity of food or income that a person is dealing with, but a scarcity of support, care and advice – and a system that can be very hard to navigate in a period of poor mental health. There is often a lack of support and understanding from people’s creditors, the benefits and welfare systems, difficulties finding advocates, problems getting appointments to see mental health professionals and little support from family, friends and neighbours. People become increasingly isolated and feel that there is no one to turn to, which in turn makes their mental health worse.

A problem of scarcity

We try to signpost people in the right direction – fortunately we have support from Citizens Advice and that provides a lifeline for many people who visit us. But often we simply make people a cup of tea and we listen. Everyday life can be a struggle. Going without essentials like food and heating, or spending hours trying to navigate a complex benefits system causes a great deal of anxiety, often exacerbating existing mental health problems and in some cases, causing mental health to deteriorate in the first place.  

Our volunteers are always on hand to listen and support – we don’t just hand out food parcels. When we’re talking about scarcity, it’s the scarcity of support that concerns me the most. We need to address how scarcity within our welfare system and within our communities impacts on mental wellbeing.

* names have been changed

Registered Charity Number 1172288