Rachel Fergusson, External Affairs Assistant, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Levelling Up: Money and Mental Health in Northern Ireland and the North West
11 August 2022
Last month, we published research exposing the UK’s inequality hotspots, where people with mental health problems in the UK are facing a much greater financial burden than the wider population. This is due to a toxic combination of factors including poor access to jobs, affordable housing and support services.
Through our regional analysis, we found that these inequalities were more acute in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, with a similarly worrying picture in the North West of England. To find out what’s driving this gap, we took a closer look at the barriers people with mental health problems are facing compared to the wider population in these places. We’ve also set out practical steps for the UK and devolved governments, as well as local leaders, to tackle inequalities in Northern Ireland, the North West of England, and other parts of the UK facing similar challenges.
Lack of suitable work for people with mental health problems
Across the UK, people with mental health problems are experiencing low levels of employment – but our research shows this in some areas people face particularly big challenges. For example, in Northern Ireland, the employment rate for people with mental health problems is 42 percentage points lower than for the wider population. This compares to 34 percentage points in the North West of England, and just 23 percentage points in the South East.
Factors including a lack of secure roles and little flexibility around things like working hours, are likely to play a significant role in limiting access to employment for people with mental health problems in these areas. In a survey of our Research Community, only 53% of respondents said they were able to access jobs in their area that supports their mental health needs. One Research Community member said:
“A lack of jobs that offer the flexibility and homeworking that I require to get back into work, and lack of employer understanding of mental health needs, plus the stigma of mental health.” Expert by Experience
As a result, many people with mental health problems end up being pushed into work that is poor quality and makes it difficult for them to manage their mental health. This increases the likelihood of them falling back out of work, reinforcing the gruelling cycle of money and mental health problems.
Poor access to financial services
Our research also showed that access to financial services – including bank branches and cash machines – varied significantly in different parts of the UK. Access to banking services is particularly poor for people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland – where just 60% of the population live within 1 kilometre of a banking service. This compares to 81% in the South East and the East of England.
Easy access to these services is vital to the financial health of people with mental health problems. Our Research Community has told us about the importance of being able to access and use cash in order for them to budget and stay in control of their spending when unwell.
“There are limited banks and ones that I don’t have access to so the money I make gets frittered away because I cannot easily access a bank. If I had bank access then I would save it but because I don’t, my mental health condition and my addictive personality [mean] I spend it.” Expert by Experience
Practical steps for leaders
As the cost of living crisis deepens, it’s crucial that the UK and devolved governments – as well as local leaders – take action now to tackle the inequalities faced by people with mental health problems. To help people with mental health problems gain secure and suitable work, the UK government should provide tailored employment support for people with mental health problems and introduce specialist mental health Work Coaches into job centres. The UK government and the Northern Ireland Executive should also take steps to make the Access to Work scheme more accessible for people with mental health problems.
While there are promises of action to protect access to cash, measures must be taken to ensure that initiatives are accessible to and work for people with mental health problems. For example, new developments like banking hubs must take into consideration the specific needs of people with mental health problems, and staff must be trained on the links between financial difficulty and mental health.
With a difficult few months ahead, it’s absolutely vital that whoever is in charge addresses the inequalities that are putting people with mental health problems in places like Northern Ireland and the North West at much greater risk of financial difficulty. Whatever happens to ‘levelling up’, closing regional gaps as well as inequalities within regions must remain a priority for the next Prime Minister – with people with mental health problems at the forefront.
You can read our report, No One Left Behind, here.