Why austerity is devastating for maternal mental health
On 15th November, a study, published in BMJ Open, accused the Conservatives of “economic murder”, and suggested the party’s austerity policies are the cause of 120,000 deaths.
With this revelation, the fact that the government ostensibly claimed to be relaxing austerity measures this year provides little comfort. Indeed, as Jeremy Corbyn said, the extra £1.3bn announced for social care in the spring budget will only be “patching up a small part of the damage” caused by cuts.
Philip Hammond’s attempt to support the NHS with £1.6bn promised for next year will also come as little relief, especially given that analysts estimate that amount will only cover about half of what the NHS actually needs to keep up with demand.
Between 2010-2013, with austerity measures in full effect and tipped by the Tories as being the optimum way to reduce the deficit, growth was slow, and unemployment rose. In a twelve month period from 2014 – 2015, there was a 19% year on year increase in the use of food banks. The estimated number of rough sleepers in England rose by 30% between 2014 and autumn 2015.
Of all the people affected by cuts to public spending, it is women who are coming off the worst. Of these women, it is those from the working classes, and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women who are the hardest hit by government austerity measures.
Why are women the worst affected?
According to Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, co-director of the Women’s Budget Group, it’s the combined effect of both losses to income and losses to public services that is really devastating for women, and mothers in particular.
“In terms of losses to income, mothers are particularly badly hit,” she says. “This is because of freezes to benefits and tax credits, cuts to child benefits, and cuts to the child element of tax credits. Additional payments after the first child are cut, and from April this year there’s the two child cap.”
With no additional money coming in after the first two children and the overall benefits cap, which particularly affects larger families, this all has a disproportionate effect on BAME families as they tend to be larger.
Mary-Ann adds that mothers “still tend to be the shock absorbers of any changes to their living situation”, whether they have a partner or are raising a child as a single parent.
“It is women who are generally responsible for managing the household budget,” she says. “So in poorer families, women are the ones having to make these hard decisions such as choosing whether to pay for electricity or buy new school shoes for the children.”
Natalie, a 40-year-old mum of two, is just one of those who has had to make hard decisions, particularly with regards to decisions involving her children.
Several years ago, she was running a successful company helping young people in schools with career options and college placements. She was due to be receiving a large injection of funding at the end of the school term. She had a happy and healthy teenage son, who she was supporting alone.
When the coalition government bought in austerity measures in 2010, her funding was withdrawn. She managed the company for another year, but had to stop in 2011 as it no longer had enough money.
From running her own company to being unemployed, literally overnight, along with her son to look after, Natalie found the only jobs she was qualified to do were ones that paid very minimal amounts, due to cuts to public sector roles.
Unable to balance her living costs and those of her son with the small amount of money coming in, Natalie quickly ended up in rent arrears.
“My son often had to stay with family members because I couldn’t afford the gas and electricity,” she says. “I was trying to apply for new jobs but I was so depressed, and sometimes I couldn’t even wash as we had no hot water.”
In 2013, Natalie hit rock bottom. She was doing agency work in schools for a small amount of money, but in November a very close family member died. “I became a hermit, and because I had depression I found I couldn’t work,” she recalls. “But the agency wouldn’t sign me off so I had no option but to leave because I just couldn’t focus.”
From then on, Natalie was in an impossible situation and she was eventually forced to move in with her father. In 2016, things started looking up, however, and Natalie found well-paid work in the private sector. But then, she found fell pregnant, and told the company.
“They sacked me when I was six months pregnant,” she says. “They said it was based on targets, but it wasn’t that at all, it was to do with the pregnancy.”
At the time she had just found her feet again, and been planning to move back into private housing. Now, though, she couldn’t go through with it due to the sudden loss of income. “So,” she says, “I was stuck at my father’s, I was six months pregnant, I had my teenage son to look after — and depression kicked in again.”
Why are mothers at risk of depression in times of austerity?
A 2015 briefing paper by Psychologists Against Austerity highlighted mothers of young children as being a group particularly at risk for developing mental health problems, with one in ten women experiencing a mental health issue during or after pregnancy. Women living in poverty are four times more likely to develop postnatal depression than those living in the highest income bracket.
Supportive social networks have been known to decrease instances of depression among new mothers, but with funding cut, huge swathes of children’s centres and mothers’ groups have had to close down in the past 10 or so years. In fact, more than 400 Sure Start centres closed alone during the first two years of the coalition government.
According to Mary-Ann, there is a definite catch-22 when it comes to austerity and mental health issues: poverty causes an increase in mental health issues, but crucial mental health services have had their budgets cut and no longer have the resources to provide.
“So, where mothers do develop mental health problems as a result of cuts, the services aren’t in place to support them,” she says.
As a result of her situation, Natalie’s mental health deteriorated drastically, yet Natalie simply couldn’t, and still cannot, get access to the help she needs. “I have tried to commit myself to hospitals, I have tried to reach out to family for help, I have tried to reach out to the doctor for help,” she says.
Getting desperate with her situation, and increasingly concerned about her mental state, Natalie approached the council for assistance when she was laid off, but was advised that she didn’t qualify as homeless because she was able to stay at her father’s.
She was finally given a mental health support worker at seven months pregnant, and placed in a hostel with her newborn daughter and her teenage son. She is now receiving counselling, and has support workers, but she was forced to come off antidepressants as she didn’t want to breastfeed while she was still on them.
The most painful aspect for her was the fact she had to wait until she was in the severe stages of depression before she received help, for both her illness and her financial situation.
“No one came to my aid to help me overcome the ways I was affected by austerity,” she says. “I’m used to being independent and using my brain, but I feel like after 19 years I’ve started again, but worse off.”
It is clear that something needs to change to stop others like Natalie being deprived of their human rights, not to mention the right to raise their child in a happy and healthy environment.
What is the solution?
“We need to end austerity,” says Mary-Ann. “We need to restore social security benefits to a level that is enough for people to live on. The idea that you don’t need support for more than two children, I mean that is essentially penalising children for the presumed behaviour of their parents.”
We need, too, to end the benefit freeze. We need properly funded mental health services that will support women, particularly mothers. We need, finally, to recognise that women aren’t just being affected by cuts directly, but also indirectly, by cuts to services, and other people.
To support mothers, we need to recognise that people never, ever fall into just one category. It is the cumulative impact of austerity that can be devastating, and we urgently need to reestablish vital support structures.