Tom Pollard, Mental Health Social Worker and Researcher

The devastating mental health impact of needing to use food banks

4 March 2022

In November and December last year, I spent time in food banks in London and Kent talking to people about the circumstances that had led to them needing food aid and the impact this was having on their mental health. I drew on my experience as both a researcher and writer on social policy issues and as a mental health social worker in frontline NHS services.

In a new report, published this week with the Independent Food Aid Network and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I describe and reflect on what I heard.

Inadequate incomes are the heart of the problem

Although people described a wide range of social and economic issues they were facing, the fundamental problem was that their income (primarily from benefits but in some cases combined with wages) was simply not enough to make ends meet.

“We never have enough money. We’re not expecting to be given loads of money to live a lavish lifestyle on benefits…but at least we would be able to provide what is necessary.” 41-year-old woman, living with her partner and four children.

This situation had been exacerbated by the recent removal of the £20-a-week Covid uplift to Universal Credit and the rising cost of food and fuel. Intertwined problems such as poor quality housing and outstanding debts added further stress and worry. Systems that were supposed to be sources of support often felt as though they were making life harder.

“I got a letter saying that they had made a mistake with the calculation and that they’d been overpaying my rent. So, they’re saying I owe them £4,000” 52-year-old man, living alone.

People were struggling to see a way forward

Everyone I spoke to had worked in the past – some had occasional or part-time work and others spoke about trying to find a job. Many people faced additional barriers to employment, such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and even those who found work described it as poorly paid and insecure.

“If I’ve got work then we don’t need to use the food bank. But a job could be two weeks, it could be a month, could be anything, you know? That’s how it works – ‘we’ve got two weeks work for you here’, but then that’s it – back to square one again.” 44-year-old man, living with his partner and two children.

People described being so overwhelmed by the day-to-day challenge of trying to get by on such low incomes, that it felt almost impossible to look to the future and take steps that might help to improve their circumstances.

 “My brain is on fire all the time, and that’s all just through the pressure of life. I can’t look beyond today. I’m treading water. My head is just above the water at the moment.” 53-year-old man, living alone.

Circumstances were taking a huge psychological toll

Given the stress and worry people were experiencing as a result of their low incomes, and the material hardship they were enduring, it was not surprising to hear that many were struggling with their mental health. Even those people who didn’t see themselves as having mental health problems often described issues that indicated poor mental health.

“Ever since we’ve not been working and we’re in this bother, I’m getting a lot of headaches and pains in my stomach and a load of ulcers. I never sleep. When I go to bed, I’m always worrying about things, so I’m always awake at night.” 43-year-old woman, living with her partner and two children.

Many people were clear that the difficult circumstances they were facing had caused or exacerbated mental health problems, sometimes to the point of them feeling suicidal.

“Since [becoming unemployed] I’m on antidepressants. They’ve upped them in the last year – I’m now on three times what I was a year ago… My house has never been in such a mess as it is now. I just can’t do it. Anything I do is so much effort I think, ‘why bother?’” 65-year-old man, living alone.

Many more people could be pulled into this situation

Since these interviews took place, the cost-of-living has continued to rapidly increase. In April, inflation could exceed 7%, and yet benefits are due to be uprated by just 3.1%. 

A range of long-term solutions are needed to address poverty and poor mental health. However, if the gap between people’s income and the cost of meeting their basic needs is allowed to continue growing, more and more people will find themselves forced to turn to food banks for support. Given the distress being in this situation clearly causes, it is something the government must avoid at all costs.

In the long run, we need an economy that provides more people with adequate income through secure employment. But the social security system needs to ensure people can meet their basic costs when they are unemployed or unable to work.