Universal credit and mental health | CPAG

Universal credit and mental health

Published on: 
07 May 2021
Written by: 

Dr Katie Pybus
Research Fellow
Department of Health Sciences
University of York

There is no doubt that the past year has changed all of our lives in ways we could not have imagined - affecting our relationships, our finances and our mental health. For families living on a low income though, the daily stresses of getting by were unfortunately nothing new, and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Families have faced additional costs such as higher food and energy bills associated with staying at home more. New evidence shows that those in the greatest financial difficulty going into the pandemic are more likely to have reported mental health problems.

Our social security system is designed to help people through hard times. There is no doubt that the system itself mobilised rapidly in response to the wide scale economic changes resulting from COVID-19, but how have families experienced universal credit during the pandemic?

Through Covid Realities, a major research programme funded by the Nuffield Foundation and working in partnership with CPAG, we have been working with parents and carers living on a low income to understand what life has been like during the pandemic. This includes how well the social security system is working for families. Our report, out today, explores parents’ and carers’ experiences of universal credit, and how this has affected their mental health.

Parents and carers we spoke to reported experiencing stress, anxiety and low mood associated with claiming universal credit, driven by inadequate payments that did not cover living costs, and financial insecurity. Trying to cope with this precarity while managing the additional stresses and strains brought about by the pandemic has impacted significantly on families. With universal credit providing barely enough to survive on, even without additional costs, the wait for the next payment could induce stress and fear, as Holly describes:

"In my head I’m counting down 18 days til I get paid again. Waiting for universal credit is scary."
(Holly W, lone mother of two, North East England)

In a separate analysis, we also found links between increased antidepressant prescriptions and universal credit across local authorities in England. While we cannot say from this data that universal credit alone has caused the rise, it does point to increased psychological distress among claimants.

Taken together, our findings suggest a pressing need to improve the adequacy of financial support provided by universal credit and to ensure greater financial security. Extending the £20 uplift, currently due to end this September, will be key to supporting families, as Winter O reports:

"The proposed change [removing the £20 uplift] is the difference between paying our bills and not being able to pay some of them. And if one-off expenses crop up (like new shoes for kids etc) then you can’t cover it. Any changes to benefits are very stressful."
Winter O, partnered mother of two, South East)

Focusing on increasing the support available to families with children, for example, by ending the two-child limit and the benefit cap, would also go a long way to addressing the harmful effects of poverty on mental health.

Moving out of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to build a social security system that prioritises the wellbeing of users and represents a longer-term investment in our health. What are we waiting for?

Note: The project on which the above draws has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.