Helen Undy, Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health

Our birthday wish-list

12 April 2019

Today is our birthday! Money and Mental Health is three years old, wobbling on our feet a bit less, throwing tantrums a little more often, and other extended toddler metaphors. Three years ago today we were officially registered as a charity, and about a month later I joined our first Director Polly Mackenzie on borrowed desks in someone else’s office to help get this thing going. The last three years have been a blur of brilliant people joining us, research crunched, reports published, campaigns won and friendships built. So on our birthday we’ll be raising a glass to a successful three years, and to many more to come.

I expect you’ll be wanting to get us some sort of gift, so in preparation for the big day we of course wrote a birthday list. This year we’re aiming big – here’s what we’d really like:

1. A pilot of money advice in the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme (IAPT).

Our analysis shows that financial difficulty is dragging down recovery rates in mental health services. The recovery rate for people experiencing both depression and financial difficulty is likely to be just 22%, compared to 55% for people without financial difficulties – is it any wonder that it’s hard to get better with debt letters mounting or bailiffs at the door?

Our modelling suggests that providing money advice to this group is likely to nearly close that recovery gap. What we’d really like for our birthday is funding to run a pilot of money advice for people using the IAPT service, to build the evidence and get this commissioned right across the NHS. As with all great birthday presents, this one is also a bit of a bargain. Our cost-benefit analysis shows that rolling out this intervention nationally would generate £108 million of savings across healthcare and wider economic benefits – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

2. Proper protection from benefits sanctions for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

There are some processes in place to offer people a temporary break from having to meet the requirements associated with certain benefits during a period of illness – for example, the expectation that you will attend meetings or apply for jobs. But when you’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, feeling anxious, suicidal or hearing voices, the same symptoms that make it so hard to meet the conditions of your benefits can also make it feel impossible to jump through the hoops needed to get help.

The government has already recognised that this process is inadequate for someone fleeing domestic abuse or receiving treatment for drug or alcohol dependence. It has introduced a temporary break in which people in this position won’t face sanctions if they don’t look for jobs or attend assessments. This year we’d like to see a similar system created for people experiencing a mental health crisis, to protect them from benefit sanctions when they are at their most unwell.

3. A stop to ‘debt threat’ letters.

Letters from debt collectors can be intimidating and hard to understand, full of complex legal language and threats of court action. Our research found that these letters can be a real trigger for feelings of hopelessness and despair.

And the truth is that the law doesn’t just allow lenders to get away with sending these threatening letters, it makes them do it. A law written decades ago sets out the exact wording that must be included in letters to people struggling with repayments for most types of credit (from overdrafts to credit and store cards, payday loans and personal loans). It even says that these intimidating messages must be in bold, capitals or in red to really stand out.

This month the financial services regulator (the FCA) told the government that it has an opportunity to change these regulations, to make debt letters works better for both consumers and firms. To hear from the government that they are prepared to act to tackle this harm would really give us something to celebrate.

If you were thinking of giving us something a little smaller – perhaps you could join the 5,000 people who have signed our petition calling on the government to tackle these ‘debt threats’

Oh, and did you think we’d let you go without a party bag? This is a third birthday after all. Here’s a little something from us: a new blog about this week’s two big debt-collection announcements, sharing a little optimism about the change we might see in the year ahead. Fingers crossed there will be even more to celebrate at our fourth birthday party.