Mental Health Awareness Week 2022: We speak to the Mental Health Foundation about loneliness and the Living Wage

Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual initiative of the Mental Health Foundation, and the theme this year was loneliness. We spoke to the Mental Health Foundation's England and Wales Director, Dr Antonis Kousoulis, about the links between low pay, mental health, and loneliness, and why it's important that his organisation is a Living Wage Employer. 

Tell us about the Mental Health Foundation.

The Mental Health Foundation is one of the oldest mental health NGOs in the world. We don't deliver services; our focus is trying to shape our society in ways that enable more people to enjoy good mental health and prevent problems occurring in the first place. 

The Mental Health Foundation puts tackling the causes of mental ill health at the heart of its approach. Can you tell us more about that?

Mental health is an area that was misunderstood for centuries, but we  now understand that there are certain factors that place someone at increased risk of developing a mental health problem. Anyone can experience poor mental health, but that risk is not equally distributed. 

If you look at the distribution of mental health problems across different population groups, there's a very clear social gradient. The higher your earnings, the lower your risk for mental health problems. The lower your earnings, the higher your debt, if you're unemployed, if you're in precarious employment or on insecure hours etc., then the higher your risk for mental health problems. 

This is a very consistent finding across many different levels of research over the years. With this in mind, there are two things to think about if you want to prevent people developing mental health problems in the first place. You can either address the factors that put people at a greater risk of developing mental health problems; or you can try to support people, not just individually, but through structures in our community to help them navigate life and get support where they need it. This balance of reducing risk factors and increasing protection is at the core of our approach, and what public mental health is about. 

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is loneliness. Why have you picked it?

Loneliness is such a key issue for mental health because it's one of those experiences that we all understand to some extent. Many people will have felt loneliness at some point in their lives, but it's a much more persistent experience for some people. There's actually a lot of stigma when it comes to talking about loneliness. What we have seen in our research is that there's probably more stigma around loneliness than there is around 'mental health' overall. You see a lot of conversations about mental health but not so many around loneliness. We're trying to change that a little bit this Mental Health Awareness Week. 

Do you think there's a connection between paying the Living Wage and tackling loneliness?

Yes, and it's a relationship that we're seeing very clearly in the evidence. For one thing, people who have to work many jobs to make ends meet have less time to socially connect. And if the main struggle in your life is trying to put food on the table for your family, it will take over most of your feelings, as well as your time. This means less energy to do social activities or to connect with others - making it far more likely for those people to be at risk of loneliness. Similarly, when we're very stressed, we tend to deprioritise some of the fundamental supports  for our mental health, like sleeping or eating healthily or exercising. So it can become a vicious cycle, where you start with one problem and you wind up with a number of different problems.This is how this whole issue of financial inequality works for many people. 

In addition to the impact of low pay itself, people who are struggling with low pay also tend to live in more deprived areas. More deprived areas tend to be less green. We know that parks and green spaces help people connect with each other, so that's another driver behind feeling lonely. More deprived areas tend to have fewer opportunities for community activities and less infrastructure for community activities so again, fewer opportunities to connect.

For many people, unless they find some kind of support from people who are close to them or from services, this becomes their regular lives. The stigma connected to both being poor and being lonely can be very isolating.  Sometimes we tend to support people with some of the simpler stuff when we know that the bigger things, like paying a real Living Wage or having decent benefits at work, might actually go a long way towards solving some of those feelings. 

The Mental Health Foundation is a Living Wage Employer, so why is that commitment important to you?

Over the past few years, we've taken a long hard look at how things are within the Mental Health Foundation. We've looked at our policies, at issues like race equality and diversity, salary levels and inflation. We pay the Living Wage because ultimately it's important to walk the talk. We talk a lot about the social determinants of health and social issues that impact our mental health, so it's important, where we can, to take action of our own.