GPs in some surgeries estimate that up to half of their patients are seeking help for mental health issues caused or exacerbated by poverty.
Doctors and families have said changes to welfare policy and recent cuts in public spending are contributing to emotional distress, according to research into the lives of families in two communities.
People have told researchers they feel they have no other option but to turn to their doctor, leading to poverty becoming medicalised.
GPs who took part in the study told researchers they estimate at their surgery a range of 10% to 50% of their patients had sought treatment for psychological problems caused by poverty, and the process of claiming or being re-assessed for benefits. These proportions had increased in recent years.
Dr Felicity Thomas, from the University of Exeter, who led the study, said GPs have limited options to help patients in this situation – often only antidepressants or talking therapy.
“But if patients continue to face the same stresses in their life these won’t be as effective as they are intended to be, and antidepressants can have unpleasant and potentially harmful side effects,” she warned.
The findings are outlined in a new report, Poverty, Pathology and Pills, produced as part of the project DeStress. Researchers examined the impacts of austerity and welfare reform on mental health and wellbeing in low-income communities.
The research took place within parts of Plymouth and a coastal town in South Devon that experience high levels of deprivation. The project team ran 16 focus groups with 97 residents in the areas and carried out 80 in-depth interviews with 57 people who had experienced poverty-related distress.
They also interviewed 10 GPs working in the areas nearby and analysed 52 video-recorded GP-patient consultations recorded as part of a separate study by University of Bristol.
GPs who took part in the study told researchers they felt frustrated they had become caught up in current and previous government drives to change welfare policies, and felt they needed to try to protect their patients from the impacts of this.
They also reported concern about the fractured nature of mental health provision and the difficulties they faced referring patients to appropriate mental health care.