According to the Guardian, ‘mental illness is estimated to cost the UK economy as much as £100bn a year in terms of healthcare, lost jobs, unemployment benefits, homelessness support, police time and prisoner places.’ A shocking statistic, perhaps – but how much is depression, anxiety or other mental health problems affecting the finances of those who directly experience them?
To try and understand the issue, we opened up a survey and 346 of you took part, revealing to us the extent of your spending on improving or maintaining good mental health. We wanted to know what people were spending their money on – including things they should be entitled to on the NHS – and also whether mental illness affects their capacity to earn a decent wage altogether.
Here are the results, broken down by question.
So what mental health problems did our participants have?
The majority of those who took our survey had depression and/or anxiety but other illnesses mentioned included eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, Body Dysmorphia, Autism, ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Are people paying for treatments they should receive on the NHS?
Once we’d understood what mental illnesses people were suffering from, we wanted to see what kind of things they spent money on. The spending was broken up into three questions: treatments you could receive on the NHS (e.g. antidepressants, counselling), alternative therapies (e.g. Yoga, Mindfulness) and finally a question about drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
Above you can see some typical treatments prescribed on the NHS and how many of our participants were either receiving them for free or paying for them. The graph shows slightly more were receiving counselling on the NHS than paying privately for it – however, private counselling was an expense for nearly 20% of our respondents. One said, “I felt like I had exhausted all of the options on the NHS and still needed support. My private counsellor was brilliant but at £40 per session it was about 10% of my monthly salary at the time to go once a week. I had to prioritise that over social activities.”
Prescription charges were another big factor. 40% of respondents received medication that they paid for (a current NHS prescription is £8.60 per item). £8.60 may seem small, but if you receive several items per month, it all starts to add up. 23% of our participants were entitled to free prescriptions.
Thirdly, there was a huge discrepancy in the number of respondents receiving or paying for alternative therapies. Only 2% of participants were receiving treatments such as acupuncture, group therapy or recovery coaching on the NHS while 16% of participants were paying for these themselves. Social prescribing was supposed to be healthcare’s next ‘big thing’, but it doesn’t look like it’s taken off at all.
Let’s drill down into that a bit further.
From this question we started to realise just how much of an expense being mentally healthy can be, with 35% of respondents forking out for a gym membership, 40% for self-help books and nearly 50% reporting to have bought at least one mobile app to try and reduce their level of mental illness.
This question had the largest variety of answers, with lots of people taking the time to explain what they bought to help prevent panic attacks, keep calm, and keep occupied. Answers included earplugs, fidget spinners, Reiki, meditation, stationery and coloured glasses (sometimes used by dyslexic people to help them read/focus better).
Two further expenses our respondents mentioned frequently were food and travel. One said, “Being mentally ill makes it hard to get out of bed so I’ve spent so much money on Ubers to make it to work/uni on time.” Another said, “I buy too much food for myself because I feel really anxious if i can’t plan my meals.” Getting something fast is often expensive, but for people who feel public transport or long queues in the supermarket are just too much, it can be an annoying necessity.
Several of our respondents mentioned compulsive shopping – particularly online – as an unwanted side effect of being mentally ill. Words like ‘binge’ and ‘reckless’ were used to describe the actions of those who buy things simply to try and make themselves feel better. One said, “I compulsively shop for the brief dopamine increase, then feel incredibly stupid and guilty afterwards.”
What about drugs and alcohol?
This question was the most eye opening, with a whopping 66% of people saying that they have explicitly consumed alcohol or drugs with the aim of blocking out their mental illness. 18% also reported to have used Class A drugs to improve their mental health, and 46% had smoked cannabis. These statistics are hard to ignore.
Unfortunately the negative effects of drugs on a person’s mental health are widely reported to be worse than the short-lived positive effects they may have. According to Rethink Mental Illness, drug use among the mentally ill can lead to more frequent episodes of psychosis, more frequent risk taking and in some cases an increased likelihood of self-harm or suicide.
Unsurprisingly, alcohol was the most common ‘vice’ used by those with mental health problems to numb or tone down their suffering. A gigantic 91% of respondents reported to have tried it, however in excess it can have the same psychotic effects as Class A drugs. Even having one drink can mimic some of the symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating or heart palpitations.
Does having mental health problems affect work or university life?
The number of respondents taking time off work or university for mental health problems is not surprising either. Of those who answered ‘yes’ to the above, 51% had taken ‘many’ days off, 39% had taken ‘one or two’ and 10% needed to skip an entire year or semester. 71% of those who could not work said it was down to poor mental health.
Not all businesses provide sick pay, so even a one-day absence can be financially crippling, particularly for those on low wages or zero hours contracts. For people with insecure employment, taking a day off could mean you lose your job altogether, particularly if your employer doesn’t consider mental illness to be a ‘real’ reason to be absent. Even if you do receive sick pay, many workplaces penalise those who take frequent days off, including bypassing them for promotion or withholding certain benefits.
One respondent said, “I have been unable to work for three years. In lost earnings this is between £100,000 and £200,000 depending on whether you look at what my salary would have been if I’d been able to progress in my career working full time.”
The overall effect of mental illness on our finances
We barely needed to ask this final question; it’s clear that having mental health problems can have an enormous effect on your financial situation. This effect is made much worse if you are already on a low income before getting ill or in unstable employment, if you are single, and the exact nature of your difficulties.
Many of our respondents have identified a clear lack of resources and long waiting times, meaning that people supplement the treatment they are entitled to with expensive and often harmful alternatives. Nobody in the UK should need to pay for their own counselling unless they choose to, and certainly nobody should feel like drugs, alcohol or cigarettes are one of their only ways to cope with what’s going on.
It’s worth mentioning that although we didn’t ask for respondents’ age, gender, race or sexuality, it has been shown that some minorities are more susceptible to mental illness than others. The Mental Health Foundation has found that those from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, and more likely to experience poor outcomes from treatment. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, and other communities – such as the trans community – are also particularly susceptible.
Mental health is a race issue and a class issue, and getting better should not be a privilege reserved for those who can afford it.
Click here to download our infographic
Mind – information and support for those affected by mental illness (including friend and families)
Rethink Mental Illness – substance abuse and mental health
Samaritans – helpline, live chat, text chat and email
NHS Choices – find your local mental health support services
Stonewall – help and advice on a range of LGBT issues including mental health
Click here to find your local MP and email him or her this article
In a mental health emergency always call 999 or Samaritans on 116 123.