The current cost of living crisis isn’t only playing havoc with people's finances, but also with their mental health, and has resulted in more people than ever across the North having to rely on foodbanks and other community services to make ends meet.

That's the view of Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill who this week visited charity Storehouse to discuss its response to unprecedented hikes in utility costs amidst soaring inflation. 

Professor O’Neill says increased use of foodbanks is having a negative effect on many people’s mental health, with some feeling a sense of shame at having to avail of these services.

Storehouse seeks to help those are going through tough times. Its ethos of ‘Dignity, Significance and Hope’ aims to counter the stigma people experience while using these services. In its city centre headquarters, Storehouse also has a clothes shop. A warehouse in North Belfast distributes clothing and furniture.

Stephen McLean, Personal Development Manager at Storehouse, helps train up volunteers.

“We accept whoever walks through our door," he says. "We are aiming to build a community and we don’t turn people away. We help people struggling to make ends meet, people struggling with homelessness, asylum seekers, people who have suffered relationship breakdowns, those experiencing drug and alcohol issues and also people who are ex-offenders.”

Storehouse’s ethos is based on non-judgemental compassion born out of their Christian ethics and their beginnings as a one-cupboard food service in Belfast’s Vineyard Church in 2008.

Adds McLean: “We wish to extend hope to everyone who comes in to see us, and to treat them with dignity and compassion. Hope for us is vital, we will extend hope and hope and hope. We do not see ourselves as a foodbank, we’re here to help people and try to develop a community that recognises significance in everyone. We designed our clothes shop, food shop and furniture warehouse so that it doesn’t feel like people are just being handed items, they can come in and choose what they would like, just like everywhere else, and it allows for a far more dignified way for people to accept help when they need it.”

CONCERN: Professor Siobhan O'Neill and Stephen McLean feel the situation is going to get worse

CONCERN: Professor Siobhan O'Neill and Stephen McLean feel the situation is going to get worse

Prof O’Neill says the cost of living crisis is fuelling a mental health crisis. “My starting point is that in 2022 people should not have to use a foodbank at all," she said. "We need far more work done to reduce the inequalities in our society. It is morally wrong. Storehouse is working to restore hope to people, and we shouldn’t be in this situation, but while we are, it is great to see people being given back hope and dignity.”

She added: “Poverty and destitution do lead to mental illness. If you are struggling to sort out your housing, food and safety you will experience immense stress, and living constantly in a state of extreme stress can take a significant toll on your mental health, and it can lead you to make poor decisions. Cycles of stress and despair can lead to an increase in suicides, and suicide is very closely tied to social justice issues. During the last recession in Ireland 500 more people committed suicide, and psychiatrists reported a rise in self-harm, so it is vital that the government acts to mitigate these problems because inequality causes great harm to society."

Both O'Neill and McLean says worse lies ahead as yet another energy price rise awaits this autumn. "People have to choose whether to have heat, or to eat, and I can’t see things getting better in the short-term any time soon," says the Storehouse manager.

Adds O'Neill: “My concern is that we aren’t seeing a shift away from what we’re doing, so this will continue. Compassion and hope are powerful things to help people, but unless we change the root problems it is just like putting a sticking plaster on these issues.”