Part 3: Basic Income Guarantee: A Prescription for Mental Health

by Susan Hartley, PhD; Clinical Psychologist and Mental Health Advocate; member of the PEI Working Group for a Livable Income

The mental health crisis is in the news on a daily basis. Indeed, significant concerns are being raised about the incidence of mental illness in PEI and across Canada, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates for mental health consistently and frequently lobby for access to fairer and better treatment and services for those experiencing mental distress and illness. Of course, improving access to treatment is important, however, what if we had a solution that could reduce the number of people experiencing mental health problems? A solution that addresses the strongest predictor of mental health problems and distress: poverty and income inequity.  

We need to talk about what is required to prevent mental illness and how we can implement solutions that address the well-researched link between income insecurity and poor mental health. With this in mind, the Working Group for a Livable Income has been advocating for the implementation of a Basic Income Guarantee in PEI.

The research on the relationship between income inequality and poor health is one of the most extensively studied areas in public health. The conclusion of this vast body of research is clear: at the individual level income insecurity predicts mental health problems. Or as stated by one group of researchers: “persistent poverty is toxic for one’s psychological health.” 

At a societal level, unequal societies have been shown to have higher levels of mental illness in the population as a whole, suggesting that poor mental health rates are higher in populations experiencing social and economic disadvantage.

How do we understand the link between BIG and improved mental health? 

The psychosocial benefits of a guaranteed basic income are potentially wide ranging. Basic Income-oriented pilots in various jurisdictions across the world have demonstrated the potential for a BIG to positively affect known psychological indicators of health including having a stronger sense of agency, greater personal mastery and more control over one’s life. When we are engaged in work – paid or unpaid – that is meaningful to us and when we have more choice and control over how we spend our time, we experience a higher degree of life satisfaction and mental wellness.

It is well documented and supported by research that adverse childhood experiences place people at much higher risk for poor mental health. Ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met through a BIG program would reduce the stress on families and help people (usually women and children) leave abusive relationships thereby having the potential to reduce the number of children exposed to family violence, parental addiction, and parental mental illness; problems frequently associated with poverty and inequality. 

As well, a Basic income leads to a lessening of the shame, humiliation and devaluation that is related to receiving means-tested welfare benefits or providing unpaid care work, and that underlies the experience of depression and anxiety. Core to the principles of a basic income guarantee is the understanding that we have a human right to live without poverty and that we contribute to society by who we are, not just by what we do. By valuing people in this way, we reduce the stigma and shame inherent in means-tested welfare processes, equating work status with our worth, and the devaluation of unpaid work.

One thing is clear from the research: one of the most effective and direct ways to reduce the incidence of mental ill-health and emotional distress would be to ensure that everyone has enough money to meet their basic needs. We have the ability to implement a Basic Income Guarantee program on PEI that could lead to a psychologically healthier population. Let’s Get It Done!


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