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Government and politics, Poverty

Psychologists against austerity

Numerous signatories call psychologists to action; and we hear from the Chief Executive of Off the Record.

16 February 2015

We are concerned about the impact that government ‘austerity’ policies are having on the lives of those who use our services. A series of reports have demonstrated clear links between economic policies and mental health, and there is strong evidence that widening gaps between the richest and poorest in society have long-term detrimental effects (Marmot, 2010; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Despite this evidence, government policies have had disproportionate effects on the poorest in society via cuts in welfare benefits and cuts in educational, social and healthcare services.

It seems to us that the policies of the major political parties are largely aimed at reducing public expenditure rather than addressing the widely acknowledged causes of the 2008 financial crisis – poor regulation of the financial sector and an unbalanced economy – or finding alternative ways of raising revenue (e.g. countering tax avoidance by large corporations). As a recent New Economics Foundation (2013) report identifies these policies are justified by well-worn narratives that ‘austerity is a necessary evil’ and that society is composed
of ‘strivers and skivers’.

Psychologists who work with the poorest in society know that this rhetoric is inaccurate and blames the victims of the crisis. We think that the mark of the ‘good society’ is how it treats the worst off in society. As a result, we feel that we have a responsibility both as professionals and as citizens to speak out against cuts to welfare benefits and to public services and to advocate for fairer economic and social policies to improve public mental health.

We know that many members of the Society and other readers of The Psychologist may share these views but feel they are powerless. However, there will soon be a general election campaign. If we act in a concerted and collective manner our efforts can have more impact than acting on an individual basis. We propose that readers inform local politicians and their constituents of the damage these policies and narratives are having and to advocate on behalf of those marginalised in society. We suggest they:
I    write a brief personalised letter to their MP giving examples of the detrimental effects of ‘austerity’ policies and advocating for a fairer approach both in terms of policy and rhetoric;
I    write to electoral candidates making similar points – for example, the criteria by which you will you be judging their policies; and
I    write to local newspapers making similar points.

In addition, we call on all member networks of the Society (especially the Divisions representing applied psychologists) to consider developing a non–party political statement identifying the problems of current ‘austerity’ policies and proposing criteria by which manifesto commitments will be judged. In order to support such action we have set up a website with links to further resources, an opportunity to share experiences, key issues to address in letters to MPs and candidates, etc.

David Harper
University of East London
with Sally Zlotowitz, Aaron Roberts, Carl Walker, Vanessa Griffin, Laura McGrath, Edward Mundy, Tamsin Curno, Sam Thompson, Katie Wood, Mel Wiseman-Lee, Chris Jones, Dilanthi Weerasinghe, Luke Hendrix, Jonathan Buhagiar, Aayesha Mulla

Marmot, M. (2010). Fair society, healthy lives: The Marmot Review. London: The Marmot Review.
New Economics Foundation (2013). Framing the economy: The austerity story. London: Author.
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane.  

Off the Record, now in its 50th anniversary year, provides free, confidential mental health advice and support to young people in Bristol. As its chief executive, I see increasing numbers of at-risk young people coming through our doors.

There’s no magic wand for someone experiencing a mental health difficulty save timely access to appropriately resourced services. And since we lack the political introspection to ask more profound questions about the health of our increasingly unequal socio-economic world and the aetiology of mental ill health more specifically, this basic issue of resources seems to me the most urgent place for our politicians to fix their gaze.

It’s encouraging to hear leading politicians now talk and pledge openly about mental healthcare. It’s a scandal that it has taken near systemic collapse to achieve this, and when even Minister of State for Care and Support Norman Lamb is able to conclude that children’s mental health services ‘are not fit for purpose’ (after three years under his watch) it is clear we’re about to hit bottom.

Multiple investigations and reviews have found the same failings, the predictable result of chronic long-term underinvestment in the face of growing demand and complexity (have a read of last year’s Centre For Social Justice report and the recently concluded inquiry by the House of Commons Health Committee if you want to understand quite how bad things have got).

Last summer the government established a task force to look at the way in which child and adolescent mental health services are commissioned, but a quick glance at a few headlines will tell you what’s going on.

Despite the fact mental health issues represent about a third of our overall burden of disease in the UK and cost us over £100 billion a year, spending on these services accounts for only 13 per cent of the total NHS budget (NHS England, 2014). Worse, given half of all adult mental health problems (excluding dementia) start before age 15 and three quarters by age 18 (, it’s hard to understand why only 6 per cent of these already limited monies go toward child and adolescent mental health. These are services that have also had to manage cuts of £50 million since 2010 (see Finally, it’s worth noting that funding for mental health research represents a mere 5 per cent of overall health research spending (see

It is this basic poverty of resources and new learning from which all other challenges flow; both for young people who experience unbearably long waits for limited treatment options, and for services with diminished budgets trying to manage the increasing demand for them. Imagine for one moment if we resourced physical health care to the same extent and with the same lack of interest in new or better treatments.

In anticipation of the predictable groans about austerity, deficits, and doing more with less – an unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth has taken place since 2008; I humbly suggest that the arithmetic is simple.

Dr Simon Newitt
Chief Executive, Off the Record (Bristol)

Editor's note: See also our discussion and special issue on 'austerity psychology'.