Tough times can bring out the best in people
Two new pieces of research lay out two sides of the cost-of-living crisis: poor mental health, and communities rising to meet the problems we all face.
Human beings are pretty good.
When times get tougher, we are – in general, at least – more likely to help each other and make personal sacrifices in order to bring communities together and make them stronger.
Research published last week by The National Lottery Community Fund shows that people believe their community connections are stronger as the cost-of-living crisis bites.
The public expects demand for food banks, debt advice and mental health services to rise – and in response more people intend to volunteer in 2023.
For all that society can feel increasingly fractured, the public response to rising poverty shows that the ties that bind have not disappeared.
At the same time, it would be foolish to downplay the scale of the problems growing within our communities.
On the same day as the lottery survey became public, the Mental Health Foundation published its own research identifying the tangible effects that household finances are having on people.
These include poor sleep, anxiety and even a sense hopelessness. To stem the tide, strategic thinking and investment are needed.
More than half of UK adults (55%) say supporting people during the cost-of-living spike is one of the key factors for improving the wellbeing of communities. Other popular priorities include reducing isolation and loneliness (53%), people caring and looking out for one another (50%) and providing services for mental health (50%).
Around half of adults (49%) intend to volunteer this year, including 69% of those aged 18 to 24.
Almost three quarters of people (74%) say they feel part of their local community, which is up from 69% in 2020. The number of people who feel this is important is also on the rise (69%, compared with 62% two years ago).
These findings come from the The National Lottery Community Fund’s latest Community Research Index, an annual survey designed to see how people feel about their communities. Over 8,000 adults took part in this year’s polling.
David Knott, Chief Executive of The National Lottery Community Fund, said: “It’s clear that the year ahead is set to be dominated by cost-of-living concerns and this is going to be as much a priority for communities as it is for individuals.
“Despite the challenges and hardships people are facing, it’s clear that the UK’s sense of community holds strong and even more people, particularly the younger generation, feel motivated to help others out.”
That’s all great to hear. Community action can directly improve the lives of people who are facing particular challenging, as well as inspiring others to help and strengthening community bonds.
However, it’s important to be realistic about the scale of the challenges we face.
The public is well aware of the importance of good mental health, and the risks to mental health posed by the rising cost of living. That is clear from the findings of the Lottery survey.
Another piece of research also bears out these effects.
Also published last week was a piece of research from The Mental Health Foundation (MHF), which showed how skyrocketing inflation is affecting people’s wellbeing:
- 30% of adults in the UK have poorer quality sleep
- 23% meet with friends less often
- 15% pursued a hobby less often
- 12% exercised less often
MHF research also found that, in the month before answering the question, financial worries had caused 34% of people to feel anxious, 29% to feel stressed – and 10% to feel hopeless.
The organisation’s briefing paper Mental health and the cost-of-living crisis: Another pandemic in the making? gives an overview of the crisis's current and likely effects on people’s mental health.
It also makes four major recommendations to mitigate this growing problem:
Support community social networks, resources and resilience – This means fast-track access to additional funding, especially for grassroots organisations. The organisation says that this should also appreciate and take advantage of existing community asset, which means “looking at the positives present in the community and the ability of individuals and groups to transform neighbourhoods with the expertise that only people who live and work there have.”
Assess the mental health impact of all government decisions that address the cost-of-living crisis and implement these assessments – The organisation says good mental health and wellbeing should be at the heart of every government policy.
Leadership: making sure energy companies, other essential service providers and creditors have policies and procedures that underpin a compassionate response to customers experiencing financial strain – “These companies must be urged to promote appropriate and supportive collections activities, provide social tariffs and other options available to customers and review their communications to limit the distress caused by letters, emails and phone calls to people who have fallen behind.”
Making sure that frontline workers know how to respond effectively to the mental health effects of financial stress and strain – This is an example of a modern approach to efficiency. Frontline workers (in health, social care, debt advice and more – including public-facing roles at utility companies) who are, by the nature of their work, more likely to deal with people whose mental health is struggling should have basic processes in place to respond appropriately when they do come into contact with people in a vulnerable state of mind.
The cost-of-living crisis is still in full swing. Even if inflation falls significantly, it is still likely to be higher than growth in incomes – meaning people will continue to get poorer, just do so a bit more slowly.
Community help is vital and necessary. It also needs more support. This is a tough time for everyone, including the third sector, which faces a spiral of rising demand for services together with an increasingly tough funding environment.
Major funders like The National Lottery Community Fund should continue to support good causes, but government should also look to distribute cash to organisations – and see this as an investment. Charities can do great things.
The need for this is especially high, given the parlous state of public services across the UK. Reform, improvement and investment in those is also necessary. The UK is on a poor trajectory right now. A huge, fundamental change in course is required.
All of this is true without even considering some of the sweeping forces that are altering the world as we know it, in ways both foreseeable and impossible to predict. Climate change, automation, global political dynamics (and war) – all of these will are changing societies everywhere.
With the best will in the world, even if Westminster (and Stormont, and Holyrood and the Senedd) come up with a suite of brilliant policies to address short- and long-term issues within the UK, things are not going to transform overnight.
When it comes to balancing resources, there is a tension between the long-term reforms that are needed to make services fit for the future, and the requirement to address immediate need.
Which brings us all the way back to the third sector, and communities, and the people within those communities.
It really is good to hear that so many people – and young people, in particular, intend to help out this year. That help is needed, and will make a big difference.
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