Updated: Apr 18, 2021
With attention turning to the mental wellbeing of children across the UK with Place 2 Be's awareness week, our team thought it important to ensure that children living in poverty were taken into consideration. How does living in a poor household affect a child's mental health?
What is Children’s Mental Health Week?
Children’s Mental Health Week is an awareness event organised by Place 2 Be, a children’s mental health charity based in the United Kingdom. It runs from the 1st to the 7th of February in order to shed light on the problems millions of children face each day.
There is a particular focus on children connecting with their own headspace this year, and the event has chosen the theme ‘Express Yourself’, encouraging children to get creative with their art, writing, video making and clothing choices.
Unfortunately, there are some children who are unable to participate as freely in this creative method of expression.
Child Poverty in the UK
Alarmingly, child poverty has seen a trending increase rather than a decline. A study by Loughborough University for End Child Poverty has shown that since 2014-2015, the percentage of children considered to be in poverty, i.e. children living in households which earn below 60% of the median income (reported in 2020 as £30,800 by the Office for National Statistics), has seen a 2%-point increase across the UK. There has been rapid increase in cases throughout the Midlands and the North, with Middlesbrough enduring a whopping increase of 16%.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group and the Government Department of Work and Pensions,
4.2 million children (30%) were living in poverty in the UK during 2018-2019.
Black and minority ethnic groups have almost double the chance of living in poverty, totalling at 46 per cent of children compared to 26 percent of children from White British families.
72% of children in poverty have at least one parent who is in work (contrary to stereotypes perpetuated by the media).
These major concerns have been amplified in 2020 by the catastrophic impact of the pandemic. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) on UK Poverty 2020/21 found that most areas with a large increase of benefit claims were also areas with high furlough rates. The report uncovers the harrowing effects of COVID-19:
The number of households claiming universal credit increased 90 per cent from the start of 2020 to August of that year (4.6 million).
4 in 10 households that make this claim are families with children.
Shockingly, the government has not increased child benefits, despite the fact “JRF polling in May 2020 showed that most families with children in receipt of Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits had to go without essentials, were building up debt and falling behind with their bills or rent.”
Additionally, 2020 saw the loss of free school meals over the holidays, which has proved an essential for at least 30% of children in the UK. Across the country, community spirit shone through as local businesses far and wide offered free or reduced lunches to ensure no child went hungry during this time. Luckily, this was revoked after a campaign lead by footballer Marcus Rashford.
However, regaining the right to free school meals is not the end of the story. Children in poverty are not just in need of physical essentials, but mental welfare, emotional stability, and opportunities to express themselves.
The Effects of Poverty on Mental Health (and vice versa)
Around 1 in 10 children and young people in the UK are affected by mental health problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) have found that,
“Worldwide, 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental health conditions, but the majority of them do not seek help or receive care.”
Unfortunately, there is a lack of research on child mental health and poverty in the UK available in the public domain. The latest investigation from the NHS was carried out in 2017, available on the Office of National Statistics, and its results are enlightening.
The report found that, “children whose parents receive welfare benefits [were] more likely to experience a mental disorder.” The graph below shows the data provided by the NHS, which reveals that children in receipt of welfare benefits are over two times more likely to have a mental disorder.
Long waiting lists and poor infrastructure within NHS services for mental health is barrier enough for children experiencing mental health issues, but there are additional difficulties for those who need help financially:
Confiding in a parent: low-income families or lone-parent families often have parents or carers who work long hours and/or shift work, making it hard for children to share their thoughts and feelings.
Sense of identity and self-expression: children living in poverty are unable to have the same opportunity to express themselves as those from financially stable families. Art supplies, trendy clothes and the latest technology are often too expensive.
Fitting in at school: not being able to participate in the latest fashion, own the newest or best fitting school uniform, or know the current internet trends are a prominent cause of feelings of isolation and even episodes of bullying.
Home environment: households living in poverty often experience more stress and tension due to financial pressure. This atmosphere can affect children's general mood and can lead to long term mental health issues. Additionally, it increases the difficulty of completing schoolwork, which is another large stress factor.
Medication costs: the additional cost of medication, which is often an essential aid to the treating of a disorder, is a further complication for those who are already struggling to acquire family essentials.
Transport costs and time off: travelling to and from medical appointments and taking time off to escort children are hidden costs often forgotten and uncompensated.
Undoubtedly, children living in poverty will find it harder to cope with mental health problems due to their lack of stability, security and opportunity to improve their condition. It is also true that living with a mental health condition has the potential to inhibit a person’s day to day living to the point where they are unable to go to work, increasing their risk of living in poverty or decreasing their chance of escaping poverty.
It is widely acknowledged that poverty is a factor which contributes to mental health problems, as is mental health a potential hurdle to financial security. It is therefore imperative that this issue is provided with more frequent research in order to come to a number of possible solutions to the heartbreaking problem that is children suffering with mental health.
How can you help?
In order to help children living in poverty participate in events like Children’s Mental Health Week, giving them a chance to open up about their mental health through self-expression, you can help by donating old clothes to charity shops (read our recent article on the dos and don’ts of clothing donations), or help us produce clothing vouchers by donating to our charity via our website.
Bottling up emotions is an ineffective way of dealing with stress and mental health problems. By being able to express their feelings, thoughts and identity through something as simple as the clothes they wear, children can feel empowered to share their problems and discuss their mental health. By taking ownership over their self-expression, children can move away from the feeling that they have no control over the life they lead or the position they are in.
The battle to end child poverty is on-going and long, but in the meantime, your efforts to help these children integrate into our society and feel a sense of belonging can really make a difference.
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