In a joint statement by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Ministry of Trade and Industry released on 23 May 2023, Singapore’s core inflation remains firm at 5% in April. This is mainly due to the higher cost of holiday expenses and airfares.
Are you sick of hearing grim numbers like these? You have good reason to be. Inflation has dominated our news feeds—grabbing headlines, sparking dissension, and triggering policy responses. However, amidst the fervour surrounding rising prices and financial implications, one critical aspect often takes a backseat: mental health.
A study from Canada-based healthcare provider Telus Health released on 17 May 2023 found that the state of Singaporeans’ mental health is “significantly strained” with inflation taking a hefty toll on their mental well-being and relationships. 3 in 10 Singaporeans have cut back on health-related expenses due to inflation. 22% say financial pressure is the reason for a decline in their marital/partner relationship.
That sucks. But it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, isn’t it? How can one even begin to think about mental health when the pressure is on to reduce grocery bills for the week? Then again, how can one think rationally and productively about financial circumstances while feeling utterly dispirited?
Overlooking our psychological well-being in light of financial strain perpetuates a cycle of neglect and further exacerbates the plight of those already suffering. And it shows in the numbers.
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How has inflation affected the mental health of Singaporeans?
29% of Singaporeans have cut back on expenses related to their health.
Even prescription medication is being sacrificed, with 13% of respondents reducing their intake. Parents are especially vulnerable in this regard, as they are 80% more likely than non-parents to cut back on health-related expenses.
Individuals without emergency savings are 70% more likely to cut back on prescription medication compared to those with savings.
The correlation between emergency savings and prescription medication usage is particularly noteworthy. This highlights the desperate measures some Singaporeans are forced to take due to financial constraints. Such compromises jeopardize physical health and can significantly impact mental well-being.
The mental health score of respondents who have cut back on prescription medication is more than 10 points below the national average.
The overall Mental Health Index (MHI) for the first quarter of 2023 is 61.6, up from 60.5 in September 2022. The index runs on a scale from 0 to 100, in which higher point values mean better mental health and less mental health risk. A score below 49 indicates distress, and a score between 50 and 79 is considered strained.
Those who have reduced expenses related to their health score more than four points below the national average.
41% of Singaporeans are opting to stay home more frequently.
Now, that’s totally cool if you’re a homebody. But for those who limit social engagements solely because of the need to save money, it’s rough. Human beings thrive on social connections, and when financial constraints limit their ability to maintain an active social life, mental health can suffer. This sense of isolation may contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and depression among affected individuals.
Why do we neglect mental health when we talk about inflation?
Reason #1: Tangibility bias
Inflation’s effects are tangible and observable. Rising prices are visible on receipts and bank statements, affecting our wallets on a daily basis. The immediate and concrete impact on financial matters captures attention and drives public discourse.
On the other hand, mental health remains invisible, its impact is often intangible and difficult to quantify. Creeping anxiety and the strain on relationships do not come with price tags or economic indicators.
Reason #2: It’s 2023 but the stigma still exists
Despite progress in recent years, mental health still carries a stigma in many societies. Furthermore, the link between financial strain and mental health is often dismissed or oversimplified, perpetuating the misconception that those affected should simply “toughen up” or “get over it”.
This stigma hampers open dialogue and prevents the necessary attention and resources from being directed towards addressing the mental health consequences of inflation.
Reason #3: Lack of awareness and education
Media coverage and public discussions tend to focus primarily on the economic dimensions of inflation, leaving little room to explore the human cost. As a result, the average citizen may not be fully aware of the psychological toll inflation takes on the self and communities at large.
More than one-quarter of Singaporeans (28%) admitted that they have difficulty controlling their emotions. This same group has the lowest mental health score (45.3), more than 16 points below the national average (61.6). Additionally, individuals without emergency savings are nearly 2 times as likely as respondents with emergency savings to have difficulty controlling their emotions. There’s a chance that an individual wouldn’t have discovered this correlation on their own, perhaps brushing off an outburst by attributing it to work stress or simply a “bad day”.
And this brings us to our next point.
Reason #4: Policy priorities
The urgency to address immediate economic challenges often overshadow the long-term consequences on mental well-being. Without a concerted effort to integrate mental health considerations into policy responses, individuals grappling with the psychological toll of inflation are left without adequate support.
Advocacy efforts and public pressure play a vital role in shaping political discourse and policy priorities. Historically, mental health has struggled to gain the same level of attention and activism as other social issues. I mean, there’s progress for sure, but we all know that more work is needed to push mental health forward in social, economic, and political discussions.
Meanwhile, what else are Singaporeans sacrificing to combat inflation and how might it affect mental health?
According to the same study by Telus Health, a staggering 65% of individuals have cut back on discretionary spending. Discretionary spending refers to the money spent on non-essential goods and services. You might call them the “wants”. That refers to entertainment, dining out, vacations, hobbies, and luxury stuff. Okay, everyone has their own definition of what luxury means. For some, it’s the latest Charles and Keith bag. Let’s move on.
That said, how many of us are looking to only…exist? There’s a huge difference between life and living life. Often, what is considered optional in the context of survival is essential to our pursuit of fulfilment and purpose. We don’t want to get by. We want to live.
Another recent report advances this thought. The April 2023 study conducted by RedMart by Lazada and Milieu Insight involving 1000 consumers found that:
- 42% of households in Singapore have reduced their grocery budgets by 10-20%, while an additional 23% have reduced them by 30% or more.
- Of those who reduced their budgets, 74% have changed their buying habits by purchasing based on essential needs rather than wants.
- More than half (53%) of budget-conscious households opt for cheaper brands as a strategy to reduce spending.
This change in purchasing behaviour nationwide further raises the question: how might financial strain caused by inflation potentially lead to feelings of loss, dissatisfaction, frustration, and deprivation?
Interestingly though, while the majority of households have reduced their grocery budgets, 14% have increased their allocations. Before you begin to wonder how these folks are making it rich during an inflationary period, here’s the answer: they’ve found creative ways of stretching their dollar.
For instance, nearly half (48%) of respondents who increased their grocery budgets engage in bulk buying to secure better discounts. In addition, approximately 33% of households that increased their grocery budgets have transitioned from fresh meats to frozen options. This shift is indicative of individuals’ attempts to manage costs by opting for more affordable alternatives.
What are some ways that could help Singaporeans manage their mental health during inflation?
1. Prioritize self-care
Taking care of your mental well-being is crucial during times of inflation. Incorporate self-care practices into your routine:
- Engage in stress-reducing activities, such as exercise, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.
- Stay connected with loved ones, seek emotional support, and engage in activities that foster social connections. Sharing experiences and concerns with trusted friends or family members can provide comfort and perspective.
- Partake in activities that bring joy and relaxation, such as hobbies, creative pursuits, or spending time in nature. These activities can provide a respite from financial concerns and promote mental well-being.
2. Embrace do-it-yourself (DIY) and self-sufficiency practices
Instead of leaving your favourite crunchy peanut butter behind at checkout, be creative about the different ways you can cut costs. One way is to learn skills that can reduce your reliance on costly professional services. That includes home repairs, gardening, basic car maintenance, and cooking. Plus point—it could be a whole lot of fun, especially if you pick these skills up with a partner, bestie, or family member.
3. Enhance financial literacy
This could come in the form of consulting with financial advisors or professionals to help you navigate the challenges of inflation and develop strategies to protect your finances. Experts in the field can provide guidance on budgeting, investments, and ways to mitigate the impact of rising prices.
Or this could also be about educating yourself on personal finance and inflation. Understanding the dynamics of inflation, its impact on the economy, and various strategies to manage it can empower you to make informed financial decisions. Giving up your dream Morrocon honeymoon might not be your only option.
4. Budgeting and financial planning
Developing a realistic budget and financial plan can provide a sense of control and reduce financial stress. Take the following steps:
- Monitor your spending habits to identify areas where you can cut back or make adjustments. Read our guide to the best budgeting apps here.
- Focus on meeting essential needs while reducing discretionary spending. Differentiate between wants and needs to make informed financial decisions.
- Establish an emergency fund to provide a safety net during uncertain times. Save a portion of your income regularly, even if it’s a modest amount, to gradually build up this fund.
Prioritize savings by making conscious choices to set aside a portion of your income regularly. Explore ways to cut costs and save money, such as:
- Compare prices and shop around for the best deals. Take advantage of discounts, sales, and promotions.
- Minimize food waste and other unnecessary expenses. Plan meals, make grocery lists, and avoid impulse purchases.
- Conserve energy to reduce utility bills. Turn off lights when not in use, unplug electronics, and adjust thermostat settings to save on energy consumption. Read our comparison guide on the best electricity plans here.
A final word
Jamie MacLennan, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of APAC at Telus Health, says the results of the latest Mental Health Index serve as a call to action to the government to address the cost of living crisis which is having a significant impact on the mental health of Singaporeans. “Financial wellbeing is highly correlated with mental wellbeing; as financial wellbeing improves, so do mental health scores.”
If you require support or know someone who does, don’t hesitate to reach out:
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