Being more understanding alone doesn’t give those with severe problems the services they need
For Andrew Dickens, the problems started as soon as he was old enough to get credit. “I was terrible with money,” he says. “And it was the late 90s and credit was dished out like sweets.” After leaving university, he would frequently build up debt on credit cards to fund his lifestyle, before being offered consolidation loans to bring the balance to zero. “And off you go again.” He was even given a £10,000 consolidation loan by a bank when “they knew I was unemployed”.
A cocaine addiction, linked to his depression, accelerated the accumulation of debt – he estimates that at one point during his mid-20s, he owed more than £50,000.
“It all became a nasty circle: my debt fuelled my illness, my illness made me build up more debt, and so on. The problem was, my mental health issues prevented me from confronting it,” he says.”
For Dickens, like many others, issues with money and mental health are delicately interwoven. It’s a widespread problem: just as people in problem debt are significantly more likely to experience mental health problems, those with mental health problems are more likely to end up in problem debt.
In a survey by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), 86% said their financial situation had made their mental health problems worse. But despite the copious evidence suggesting exactly how connected the two factors are, critics say that banks and utility companies are still falling short when it comes to supporting their customers.
“If someone has a physical disability or sensory impairment, most companies know what to do,” says Helen Undy, director of the MMHPI.
“Even if they’re not doing it brilliantly, if someone says they’re visually impaired or have hearing loss, firms tend to know what adjustments they should be making, and generally those things tend to be available.”
But if somebody has a severe mental health problem, most companies “don’t know what to do”, she says. “There’s been an increasing focus over the past couple of years on being kinder and more understanding, which is a good start. But actually, kindness doesn’t necessarily give you access to the services you need.”
It’s with this in mind that the institute has developed a new set of accessibility standards, designed to improve access to essential services.
Working with 25 providers across financial services, energy, water and telecoms, the standards lay out 11 key areas for firms to improve on. Among these are ensuring that services are as accessible as possible, and being able to provide specialist support for those who disclose their mental health problems.
Companies are encouraged to train staff, improve systems and processes, give customers their own tools to manage their finances, ensure customers can communicate with providers in a variety of ways, and improving website accessibility.
The service providers are asked to recognise customer fears and communicate in a way that’s easy to understand.
While some solutions to the problems can be accessed via technology (challenger bank Monzo, for example, uses card blocks and delayed payments to make it harder for mentally ill customers to spend money), many other suggestions could be relatively simple to implement.
Undy points to logins. Is there not an easier way for banks to confirm who customers are? “There are so many passwords, pin numbers, secret names,” she says. “Many people find they’re essentially locked out.”
If you can get into your account, you may not be able to remember the details of a conversation you’ve had in store or on the phone.
“Firms are ending up with repeat callers who can’t remember if they have debts or a direct debit set up, or what kind of repayment plan they agreed,” she says. “For some people this can be very distressing, especially if they’re already anxious.”
Sending reminders after the conversation of what was agreed would be simple to implement, Undy argues, and so would other low-tech features, such as the ability to download a conversation you’ve had on web chat.
“At a very basic level, you can train your staff to ask at an important point during the phone call: Do you have a pen and paper? Here are the key bits of information you need to know.”
Giving customers options – which Undy describes as “just good customer service” – is key. “We know that half of people with mental health problems have significant difficulty making phone calls,” she says. “So what’s going to make the difference is being able to pay your bill or update your meter reading via web chat or email. We just need a range of ways to do things.”
After a year of research and development, the standards were launched recently. The MMHPI is now running a pilot with Lloyds Bank, assessing all of its personal banking products.
Mortgages, credit cards, loans, overdrafts and more are all being measured against the standards to see how easy it is for customers to get access to and manage their products.
At the end of the pilot, Undy hopes, the standards will be rolled out more widely.
This is only the start when it comes to improving essential services. Earlier this year, research from Citizens Advice found that mentally ill people pay on average £1,110 to £1,550 more for services per year, largely because of the so-called “loyalty penalty” – the cost of not shopping around for different products.
This is partly an accessibility issue – people practically struggling to switch. But if you are in a desperate situation, Undy points out, switching your contents insurance “is really not top of your priority list”. Firms need to ensure people are not being penalised.
Debt charity StepChange is also campaigning for a comprehensive system of support for those struggling with distressing life events – this, they argue, could prevent people from getting into financial problems to begin with.
After 20 years struggling with debt, Dickens’ credit rating has returned to normal, though money “still gives him anxiety”.
He firmly believes that essential services should be doing more to support people with mental health problems. As the accessibility standards suggest, he wants to see staff properly trained in mental health problems and how they can manifest, and for firms to advertise more prominently the features they have in place for support.
“And they need to understand that mental illness can be disabling – that it can physically stop you from acting,” he says. “They need to treat people like people.”