Katie Evans, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

The case for extending Breathing Space to people in mental health crisis

Money and Mental Health has heard many heartbreaking stories of people who found themselves in serious financial difficulties after a mental health crisis. These financial difficulties make it much harder for a person to recover, and drastically increase the risk that they will become seriously ill again. But it is not inevitable.

Over the last six months, we have worked with hundreds of our courageous Research Community members to understand how and why mental health crisis so often leads to financial difficulties, and to work out how we could help.

Breathing Space

Today, we are asking the government to consider extending the ‘Breathing Space’ scheme currently under consultation to people receiving treatment for a mental health crisis.

In its present form, Breathing Space will provide people in problem debt with a period of relief from fees, charges and collections activity while they seek debt advice. The idea is that the promise of this relief will encourage people to seek help earlier, and give them space to work through their problems and find an appropriate solution. It should help to break the cycle of despair that many people in problem debt feel – particularly when fees and charges keep stacking up, the letters keep coming, the phone keeps ringing, and bailiffs are knocking on the door.

Recovery Space

But, under current plans, Breathing Space will not help the tens of thousands of people in mental health crisis each year who are too unwell to seek debt advice.

Not everyone who experiencing a mental health crisis will also be in problem debt. But our research suggests that a significant proportion of people fall behind on bills while they are acutely unwell – 86% of 157 people with lived experience of a mental health crisis who responded to our survey had fallen behind on at least one bill, and nearly half (44%) had problems with five or more different bills.

The fees and charges which are levied when payments are missed often make the problem worse. We came across instances where a person would have been able to pay their arrears once they were well enough to re-engage with their finances – but the additional charges pushed them into the red, with no obvious way out. Many firms will refund charges the first time they are incurred – but only if a person is aware of the charges, and able to ask for this respite. In the middle of a mental health crisis, this is often just too much to ask.

At present, it is far too easy for someone to fall into financial difficulties during a mental health crisis. Offering a period of Breathing Space from fees, charges and collections activity, to everyone who is in hospital for their mental health, or under the care of a crisis team, won’t fix everything. But it will stop things getting much worse, while people are too unwell to do anything about it.

“I attempted suicide twice while I was in spiralling debt, I just couldn’t see a way out. If someone had given me a window, just put a pause on everything to allow me to get some help, that would have been fantastic. Having a few weeks to focus on getting well would have made a big difference. You can’t make good financial decisions when you’re in crisis anyway, so to take that away and just wait until things are a little calmer would make an enormous difference.” – Lee

How would it work?

The way this works would depend on what the government’s final Breathing Space scheme looks like. But we do have some initial ideas about how it should work.

  1. The scheme should be initiated by health and social care staff supporting a person experiencing a mental health crisis. At present, too many mental health practitioners hesitate to ask service users about their financial situation because they fear there is nothing they could do to help. Knowing they can secure Breathing Space would give practitioners a powerful practical tool to protect the people in their care.
  2. Creditors would then need to be informed that the person is eligible for Breathing Space. Often, the person themselves will be too unwell to do this – but a carer or support worker may be able to do it. If nobody is able to offer this help immediately, creditors should refund any charges accrued while a person was receiving treatment for a mental health crisis retrospectively.
  3. Once a person has recovered sufficiently to re-engage with financial management, they should be referred to specialist money advice. This would help address any financial problems that have emerged while a person was unwell, ensure people are receiving any benefits they are entitled to, and create conditions conducive to recovery.

Next steps

This is just one of the recommendations in our report – you can find the rest here. But it is the most important. The government have a real opportunity, as they design Breathing Space, to also support the 23,000 people who experience problem debt while in hospital for a mental health crisis each year, and the thousands more being treated in the community. We hope they will take it.