Nikki Bond, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

How financial services firms can support people in crisis, and their loved ones

29 May 2019

The experience of mental health crisis can be frightening and debilitating, both for the person concerned and the loved ones who support them. In these highly stressful times, when people’s reserves are at their lowest, sorting out finances is often the last thing on people’s minds. Where people are living on tight budgets in the first place, payments can bounce and charges can be incurred. At the extremes, people’s debts can escalate rapidly, bailiffs might visit, or eviction notices be issued.  

In my previous role, I worked in financial services in a Specialist Support Team, supporting customers experiencing mental health problems with their accounts on a daily basis. This gave me a useful insight not only into the crucial role financial firms can play in mitigating financial harm and supporting people through these difficult times, but also the challenges they face in doing so – especially when responding to friends or relatives caring for someone going through a crisis.

Opportunities to help

Stacey* has long-standing mental health problems, and is currently going through a period of crisis. Whilst acutely unwell she struggles with impulsivity, memory and concentration. As such Stacey is spending most of her money on payday and forgetting to save money back for her rent or food. Stacey’s bills are bouncing and she’s incurring huge charges. Struggling already, these money worries are exacerbating Stacey’s mental health and she often calls in highly upset and angry.

When I received one of these calls and could speak to the customer directly, it was always a huge relief. Supporting the customer, and with their permission, there was a whole host of things we could do to help.

You can support the person to understand what has happened. You can work out when the next bill is due to go out and help them prioritise. You can talk to them about whether the type of account they have is right for them. You can refund charges, apply breathing space so they have a respite from paying debts, and you can signpost them to mental health, debt advice or welfare rights services.

Challenges to providing support

An altogether more tricky scenario is when someone calls up on behalf of another person who is experiencing a mental health crisis because they want to help – and want you to help them.

Issac called in on behalf of his uncle, who had been admitted to psychiatric hospital several days earlier. In the course of sorting things out, Issac had come across dozens of letters with outstanding bills and threats of court action. He could see his uncle had not made payments on his mortgage for over six months and repossession proceedings had commenced. He was calling to ask for help.

When you don’t have prior permission to talk to another person your hands are really tied. It’s incredibly difficult and frustrating for staff who want to help and have a whole host of things they could potentially do to assist, but without consent to do so, the options are limited.

How can we improve support to people experiencing mental health crisis

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Last year we published our Recovery space report, where we made a number of recommendation for how financial services could support people experiencing mental health problems, and reduce the harm of mental health crisis:

  • Routinely collect emergency contact details for people so that loved ones can assist in an emergency
  • Offer customers control tools and settings, such as cash withdrawal and spending limits. This would allow people to prepare for times when they are less well, and minimise the risk of financial harm.  

We are currently carrying out a new research project looking at how firms can better support people experiencing mental health problems to arrange for another person to assist them with financial management. As part of this, we’re looking at the whole range of systems that currently exist – from Power of Attorney to third-party mandates – and seeing how well they work for people, and what could be done to improve them. We want to ensure that people experiencing mental health problems and those in crisis are able to retain as much privacy and control over their finances as possible, while also getting the support they need from others.

This report is due out in early summer, so keep an eye on our website and social media for more news!

*This name has been changed to preserve the individual’s anonymity