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London’s next emergency: mental health

Our leaders are still very much focused on tackling coronavirus and the recession, but there is another crisis unfoldingone of mental health. 

As the city experiences second coronavirus wave, this blog reviews new data on the key economic indicators affecting the wellbeing of Londoners, from our quarterly Snapshot of Londoners survey produced in partnership with Savanta. 

The experience of living through lockdown feels particularly tough in London, where on average we have less living space per personand cannot do most of the leisure activities that make city life appealing. But for a growing number of Londoners, the experience of lockdown will be primarily defined by persistent worries about finances.  

We know that uncertainty and struggle over personal finances drive mental health problems, particularly high anxiety and unhappiness. The survey results released so far by the ONS are alarming: 19 per cent of British people were experiencing depressive symptoms in the spring – almost twice as many as before the pandemic. Women, younger people, people with disabilities and those who cannot afford an unexpected expense were between 1.7 and six times more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

Given the high proportion of Londoners who have entered this crisis on low incomes, and the high proportion who have seen their pipeline of work collapse overnight as entire business sectors went into lockdown, large proportion of Londoners looks extremely vulnerable to the recession: in many cases their mental health will also be at risk. 

Our latest Snapshot of Londoners published last month found that 44 per cent of Londoners find their rent unaffordable (this rises to 51 per cent for women). 19 per cent of Londoners say transport in the capital is unaffordable, rising to 24 per cent among women and 26 per cent among people between the ages of 25 and 34. And as many as 13 per cent of Londoners say food is unaffordable for them, with again a significant gender split: the figure is 11 per cent among men, and 15 per cent among women.

The survey also revealed that 23 per cent of Londoners would not be able to afford an unexpected expense of £500. Looking to the future, 26 per cent of Londoners are pessimistic about their personal finances over the next 12 months. 

We know some of the reasons why so many Londoners are economically vulnerable – low pay in the capital is rife, and housing costs have been eating away at disposable incomes, particularly so for private renters who have to cope with more uncertainty as well as a larger gap between income and housing costs.  

But the high number of Londoners facing financial precarity points to the severe mental health crisis that is currently unfolding in the capital. Government has mitigated some of the worst effects of the recession so far by introducing the Job Retention Scheme and income support for self-employed workersThe extension of the Job Retention Scheme to March 2021 is very welcome news, but we should also make sure that the social safety net for people who lose their income or struggle to find a job will enable them to keep their head above the water. Assurance that there will be enough financial support for people who are made redundant, those who are self-employed and first time labour market entrants – and that this support will be available for as long as coronavirus disrupts the economy – would be the policy that makes this winter bearable for many. 

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Nicolas Bosetti is Research Manager at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.