Mental Health Awareness Week: We can find hope in solidarity
In this blog, our Policy, Research and Influencing Lead Caitlin Logan argues that pushing for structural change, as well as support in communities, must be front and centre of Mental Health Awareness Week
- Caitlin Logan, Policy, Research and Influencing Lead
Today marks the start of the UK’s annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which was first established by the Mental Health Foundation over 20 years ago with the aim of tackling stigma and helping people understand and prioritise their and others’ mental health.
Over the years, a greater emphasis has been placed on highlighting the ways in which poor mental health can be prevented, which includes a focus on the changes that need to be made across society to better support people and address the structural issues which make their lives more difficult.
This is vital, because it’s impossible to separate our mental health from the circumstances we find ourselves in. In a world which leaves so many people feeling isolated, stigmatised, or struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, it’s no wonder that mental health waiting lists are well beyond the capacity of a strained NHS.
It’s also important to remember that acknowledging social and structural factors should not be a substitute for understanding the often complex causes of poor mental health and the need for individual support and treatment. This is worth pointing out, because recognition of the impacts of mental ill health on people’s lives has been hard-fought and remains fragile, and the provision of mental health support is sparse and underfunded.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “anxiety”. A seven-letter word which can hardly hold the weight of pressure it signifies for so many of the parents we support at One Parent Families Scotland. Every day our local services and Lone Parent Helpline hear from single parents at breaking point, faced with choices no parent should have to make about how to keep their children healthy and happy on an unliveable income.
All too often, parents are reaching out to us because they have little or no support systems around them and, without a partner to share their worries with, the sense of loneliness can be overwhelming. This is why a central focus of the work of our local services is about bringing single parents together, and many parents tell us that the peer support they receive from other parents as part of these groups has been a lifeline for them. On a national level, we are trying to replicate this positive impact through the development of our Single Parent Forum.
On an individual level, these difficult circumstances can have a profound impact on mental health. Research from the Mental Health Foundation in November 2022 found that 29% of adults experienced stress, 34% experienced anxiety and 10% said they felt hopeless because of financial worries during the previous month.
In our own research with 260 single parents last year on the cost-of-living crisis, 56.2% said that over the past year they had felt anxious, stressed or struggled with their health most of the time over the past 12 months, and an additional 29.6% said they felt this way some of the time.
Some of the comments shared by parents in our research include:
“The continuous worry about the cost of living can make you feel worthless when you struggle to provide for your children, especially when they look up to you to do that.”
“I try to carry on as normal on the outside but inside I feel stressed and am constantly worrying about bills. How are these going to get paid, how much can we afford this week for food…”
“Depression, anxiety, stress. I am medicated and am doing CBT but despite engaging best I can, the reality is that of course I feel sad and stressed – I am responsible for the most amazing children but I am falling apart and terrified of losing my job.”
On a societal level, this picture is proof of much deeper problems, and it is simultaneously infuriating and inspiring to know that the solutions to many of these problems are well within our reach. It’s infuriating, because we know people are being put under crushing stress by policy actions and inaction from those in power, and that those who have experienced the sharp end of those choices are rarely afforded the chance to be in the rooms where those decisions are made.
Yet within this, we must also find inspiration, because it means the situation is not hopeless, it is not inevitable, and there is already plenty of evidence of what works and the steps governments could take to meaningfully improve lives and reduce inequalities.
Some of the calls being made to politicians this week by Mental Health Foundation are: income support to reduce financial stress; provision of good quality housing; strong legislation to prevent bullying, harassment and discrimination; and ensuring communities are equipped with the services and facilities we need to live well and help protect everyone’s mental health.
All of these are actions could make a significant difference to single parent families, who are more likely to be living on a lower income and to be impacted by poverty, including in-work poverty, unmanageable debt, and homelessness, as well as facing stigma and discrimination because of their family structure.
For many single parent families, these challenges are compounded by multiple inequalities. We need to understand this in order to provide the right kind of support and representation for those families, but also so that we can accurately identify and challenge the systemic problems affecting the wellbeing of the most marginalised.
Over 9 in 10 single parents are women, and the economic and social inequalities faced by women are a major factor in the stresses experienced by single parents.
For younger single parents, the barriers and disadvantages are often greater, with lower levels of benefits, a lower minimum wage, and considerable stigma and judgemental attitudes around becoming a parent at a young age.
For single parents of colour, the racism which they and their children face can contribute to feelings of isolation and be a source of constant, underlying stress which can have a serious, long-term effect on mental health. Decisions currently being made by the UK Government to create an increasingly hostile environment for migrants and now effectively banning seeking asylum in the UK through the Illegal Migration Bill, will have a corrosive impact on how people of colour more generally are treated. This will be putting a huge strain on people’s mental health.
Disabled single parents, and parents with disabled children, also experience additional financial pressures and discrimination. They are also amongst the worst affected by cuts to social security and the implementation of an increasingly harsh conditionality and sanction regime.. Just imagine the impact on a disabled single parent’s mental health of seeing the anti-benefit fraud advert released a few weeks ago featuring the Minister for Disabled People wearing a stab-proof vest and saying “we will track you down. We will find you. And we will bring you to justice”, as footage played of police sirens and doors being smashed in.
And LGBTQ+ parents and young people are also enduring a period of sustained attack, with attempts to roll back rights and inclusion, and with increasingly negative and regressive attitudes finding their way back into the forefront of mainstream media and politics.
These are pretty dire circumstances in which to be trying to support families, and it would do a disservice to people’s lived experiences to pretend otherwise. To ask for modest reforms or scraps of support when what is called for is radical change would be to fail the very people we are supposed to be serving and who are already being failed in so many ways.
A common refrain when talking about poor mental health is “you’re not alone”. But those can’t just be words. It’s up to all of us to show people that we mean it when we say: you are not alone. That means making sure people can access the support they need when they need it. It means being prepared to listen to people without stigma, shame, or discrimination. And it means standing shoulder to shoulder, in the face of injustice and inequality, to demand a better way of life so that those in power have no choice but to listen.