Peace of Mind

Why we should explore the link between Universal Basic Income and mental health.

Posted Jul 27, 2019

Leroy_Skalstad/Pixabay
Source: Leroy_Skalstad/Pixabay

A few weeks ago I was down in York, England, participating in a leadership retreat for a pioneering mental health charity in England. 

I had previously given a talk for Mind at a smaller retreat a few months earlier on the many different ways in which mental health has been conceptualized since 1946, when Mind was founded. Looking forward, I concluded the talk by suggesting that, in order to prevent more mental illness, we should consider progressive social policies, such as Universal Basic Income, or UBI. 

Something about those comments must have stuck, because this time Mind wanted me to give an entire talk on UBI. UBI is an alternative approach to the public welfare system whereby instead of claiming benefits or welfare, every person is given an unconditional basic income, usually at a level to lift them out of poverty. It is an idea that dates to Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and was recommended by American revolutionary, Thomas Paine. 

I first heard about it from the late sociologist, Erik Olin Wright, at a conference in New Harmony, Indiana, that commemorated the 200th anniversary of its founding by Robert Owen in 1814. It has also come up in my research into social psychiatry, and ever since, I have wondered about whether it could be a way of tackling the rising tide of mental illness in modern societies.

Preparing my talk for Mind, I realized that UBI could address the three main causes for mental illness addressed by social psychiatrists during the post-war period: 1) poverty; 2) class inequality; and 3) social exclusion. 

It has been acknowledged for decades that the stress associated with poverty can cause mental health problems. Recent research on inflammation is providing new insights into how stress can trigger such anxiety and depression, but the real issue is simple: finding ways to eliminate poverty. 

UBI would not only lift people out of poverty, but it could also give social welfare workers, who currently spend most of their time determining if people are eligible for benefits, the chance to actually help people with the issues underlying their situation. See the film I, Daniel Blake, for a portrait of how destructive the current benefits system is in the UK. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that it isn't much fun for the welfare officers, either.

Inequality has also been identified as a prime cause of mental health problems, most recently in Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level and The Inner Level. Since UBI goes to everyone, regardless of their class status, it eliminates some of the stigma associated with benefits. 

It would also work towards upward mobility, by letting people who want to be artists, writers, entrepreneurs, as well as those who want to go back to school to change career, an income. It would reduce the hopelessness and shame currently associated with welfare.

Finally, UBI could help address social exclusion by allowing people to engage more with their families and community, rather than spending all their energy simply trying to earn a living. This may be a more intangible benefit of UBI, but it could ultimately be one of the most valuable.

UBI won't prevent all mental illness; we know that there are numerous and various causes of mental health problems. But it would likely prevent some, allowing us to spend more attention on the more intractable and puzzling causes of mental illness. It's also important to note that among the most important beneficiaries of UBI would be those currently suffering from mental health problems, many of whom end up homeless or living in impoverished circumstances.

UBI may not create the utopia that Thomas More described, but if we want to stem the rising tide of mental illness, we need bold, socially progressive changes.  Perhaps UBI would be a good start.