Liam Hill, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health.

Mental health challenges for the debt advice sector

30 November 2018

We know that half of people in problem debt are experiencing a mental health problem, so debt advice services ought to have mental health written right through them like a stick of Brighton rock. People experiencing mental health problems might need more intensive support to make the best use of debt advice, so it should be delivered in a way that makes it simple and useful for people with mental health problems to engage with help.

That’s why we were pleased to contribute to recent research by the Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC) at the University of Bristol, in partnership with the Money Advice Trust. The research explored how well debt advisers are equipped to support people in vulnerable circumstances, including people with mental health problems. It draws on the experiences of nearly 1,600 UK debt advisers, and nearly 400 members of our Research Community who answered questions about their personal experience of debt advice.

“I was terrified of the situation I found myself in, was extremely anxious and found it extremely difficult to make a decision. I did not want to face the fact I was in debt because it made my mental health worse so did not want to hear what the debt advisor was saying.” Expert by Experience

The challenge for people experiencing mental health problems

Symptoms of some mental health problems affect our ability to absorb and process large amounts of information, and to pick out key and relevant details. This feeling of ‘information overload’ is something that people giving debt advice should be acutely aware of. This is summed up well by one of the respondents to our survey:

“My depression and anxiety made it difficult for me to understand and retain the information I was given. Under normal circumstances I would have been able to follow the advice with ease.”

A challenge for debt advisers

The PFRC’s research shows a significant proportion of debt advisers’ clients disclose a mental health problem. On average, more than a third of an adviser’s clients will disclose mental ill health, and a full-time adviser will receive around 420 mental health disclosures from clients throughout a year.

Many debt advisers are highly aware of the impact mental health can have on money management and people’s ability to deal with the debt, and the report shows they know they need more help to support people. More depth in advisers’ training around mental health, and better tools to evaluate and support mental health, should be part of the solution. The PFRC has already published a resource pack alongside this report focused on recognising consumer vulnerability, including mental health problems.

Funding challenges and the digital shift

In the context of the Wyman Review into the funding of debt advice sector, which recommended making better use of digital services in the delivery of debt advice, we will increasingly see more advice communicated by means other than face to face or over the telephone. We should ensure these changes do not make it even harder for debt advisers to offer the support people need. Our Access Essentials research published in July also showed that over half (54%) of essential services customers with mental health problems have serious difficulties using the telephone.

The answer is to ensure people are offered a choice about the communication tools via which they can access debt advice, whether that’s face to face, web chat, video chat or telephone.

The heart of the matter

Debt advice services are incredibly important and we’re lucky to have them, but the process of digitization must expand rather than restrict people’s access to these crucial services. Funding should recognise the needs of people in problem debt, and the kind of support that works best for them.