Katrina Gaffney, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health

General election 2019: A fair deal in markets for people with mental health problems

10 December 2019

There’s just a few days left until polling day, and all parties have been ramping up their campaigns and making big promises to voters. However, to really improve things for people with mental health problems, the next government should also focus on the small things that could make a big difference to their everyday lives. A crucial part of that will be taking steps to ensure that people with mental health problems are treated fairly by businesses and have equal access to essential services.

Empowering consumers

The first key way that the government can help people with mental health problems get a better deal in consumer markets is by giving them more rights and powers. Our research has highlighted that people experiencing mental health problems can struggle with impulse control, and this can make them more susceptible to problem gambling and compulsive spending. Other common symptoms of mental health problems, such as memory problems and low motivation, can mean people become trapped in deals and contracts which they either can’t afford or that offer poor value for money. 

The difficulties people with mental health problems face are amplified in a retail environment of aggressive marketing techniques and an increasing number of ‘flash sales’. The ability to make purchases almost instantaneously and easy access to credit have further increased the likelihood of people running into financial and psychological harm. We think people should be given more control over their online environment and overall spending to help protect themselves from these harms – the next government can do this by: 

  • Enabling people to block certain types of transactions on credit and debit cards, such as gambling and premium-rate phone-lines
  • Ending auto-renewal on consumer contracts, to stop people with mental health problems getting trapped in subscriptions they can’t afford, or being charged a ‘loyalty penalty’ if they are too unwell to switch services
  • Giving people greater control over their online environment, by ensuring they can opt out of marketing for gambling, limit their exposure to harmful content online and block promotional emails at night when they can be hardest to resist.

Making sure firms comply with the Equality Act

Our second call is for the government to prevent firms breaching their obligations under the Equality Act to treat people with mental health problems fairly. The Equality Act should ensure that people with disabilities (including some mental health conditions) have fair access to essential goods and services. However, our research shows that many people with mental health problems are denied insurance cover or charged extremely high premiums because of their mental health,  while others struggle to access services like banking or energy because of a lack of adjustments made to help them. The next government should conduct an inquiry into compliance with the Equality Act by regulated essential services firms, to ensure that people with mental health problems have fair access to these basic services.

Introducing minimum standards

Our final ask of the new government in this area is to introduce some basic minimum standards that people with mental health problems can expect across essential services. We all need to be able to access essential services markets like energy, water and telecoms but this isn’t always easy for people with mental health problems; 40% of people who have experienced mental health problems show significant levels of anxiety when dealing with essential services providers. These kinds of barriers to engaging with providers and navigating essential services markets can lead to financial and psychological harm.

A new set of basic minimum standards could help to address some of these barriers, by outlining the steps that firms need to take to ensure their products and services are meeting the needs of people with mental health problems. We’d like this to include clear guidance on the support that customers should receive when they disclose a mental health problem, and requirements on firms to offer customers a range of communication channels.