Aaron Lennon. Prince Harry. Jayne-Anne Gadhia, chief executive of Virgin Money. Each of these high profile people’s mental health has been in the spotlight in recent weeks and, thankfully, most of the public response has been sympathetic. But each has also faced a dark undercurrent of criticism that they’re not entitled to struggle with their mental health because they’re rich.
The most prominent example was the coverage of footballer Aaron Lennon’s detention under the Mental Health Act. Some newspapers thought it fair to headline on his £55,000-a-week income, as if this ought to have made him immune to mental illness. But it wasn’t just the news media who told this story. You don’t have to hunt far on Twitter to find undisguised trolling of anyone rich who talks about their mental health.
Why do we assume wealth protects us from mental health problems? No-one claimed Elton John was exaggerating his recent fight with a bacterial infection. When Jimmy Kimmel spoke about his newborn son’s heart surgery, no-one said the talk show host was making it up.
The fact is that rich people get sick too, and that’s as true for illnesses of the mind as it is for illnesses of the body. Prevalence does vary between rich and poor – from more than a third of those on the lowest incomes to a fifth of those on the highest. But this is a pattern replicated in physical health, too. Pretty much all health problems are more common the poorer you are, with life expectancy as much as 20 years adrift between our poorest and richest communities.
It’s also true that, once you are unwell, money can make a difference to your recovery. It might be access to better doctors or more expensive drugs. It might be the chance to jump to the front of the queue by paying privately. It might be the ability to take time away from work to recover; after all, it’s easier to live on your savings if you actually have some. Money can also help you afford to make wider changes in your life, to help you get better; The Spectator‘s Isabel Hardman has written compellingly on how she invested in her recovery from recent mental health struggles with running sessions and riding lessons.
Nevertheless, the myth that luxury possessions or a comfortable lifestyle are a comprehensive antidote to poor mental health is a dangerous one. First, it subtly reinforces the idea that mental health problems are simply not real; they’re figments of the imagination instead of illnesses that can hit anyone, regardless of background, gender, income, race or religion. Second, it implies to those who are experiencing poor mental health that they’d feel better if only they had more money or more possessions. That notion is one of many drivers behind a worrying symptom of a number of mental health conditions identified by my charity, Money and Mental Health: overspending. A survey we conducted last year of more than 5,000 people with mental health problems showed over 90 per cent spend more when they’re unwell, and huge numbers get sucked into debt or poverty as a result.
Rich, poor or ‘just managing’, none of us benefit when we’re told that money is the pathway to happiness. Yes, savings can help you get by, and debt or incessant bailiffs’ visits can make it harder to recover. But we are all vulnerable to mental illness, and we all need support when times get tough.
Polly Mackenzie is Director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute