Georgia Preece, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

How can the government ensure that Breathing Space reaches more people?

17 June 2022

Imagine you are in hospital in crisis — the last thing you want to think about are your bills. But, creditors keep calling you, letters are piling up about missed payments and the ever-increasing threats of debt collection loom. This is the unfortunate reality for many people experiencing a mental health crisis. In our recent survey, more than eight in ten (86%) of respondents experienced financial harm when they were under the care of secondary mental health services such as psychiatric hospitals and community mental health teams. Over half (55%) reported to have missed a payment for an essential bill, such as a mortgage, rent, energy or council tax. 

The government’s Mental Health Crisis Breathing Space scheme aims to prevent this escalation. It is an innovative scheme that gives respite to people who are struggling with problem debt while experiencing a mental health crisis. The scheme gives people legal protection from creditors, a pause on most enforcement action and freezes most interest charges for the duration of their mental health crisis. Breathing Space has the potential to have a hugely positive impact on people’s finances during mental health crises and is a groundbreaking step in ensuring that people are appropriately supported. 

However, the Mental Health Breathing Space scheme is not currently serving all those it could. The number of people accessing the scheme falls significantly short of HM Treasury’s predictions. Just 786 people benefited from it as of February this year, compared to a Treasury forecast of 27,500 people. The limited use of Breathing Space isn’t reflective of a lack of need, but rather points towards a bigger problem – a lack of awareness of the scheme among professionals.

In our recent report, we set out two recommendations that would ensure the Mental Health Breathing Space scheme reaches its full potential and really helps people in mental health crises.

The Money and Pensions Service should promote Breathing Space to more Health Care Professionals

Currently, only those classified as Approved Mental Health Practitioners can officially confirm that someone is eligible for Breathing Space. Yet, a huge range of healthcare professionals are in regular contact with people in crises, and are well placed to identify people experiencing financial difficulties and refer them to the scheme. 

The referral process, however, relies on professionals knowing about the scheme in the first place, and this wider awareness is sadly lacking. The Mental Health Breathing Space scheme should be promoted more broadly amongst a wider range of Health Care Professionals, including: Mental Health Nurses and Health Care Assistants. By ensuring that more professionals know that Breathing Space can be a lifeline for people with mental health problems that are facing financial difficulties, fewer opportunities to intervene and support people in mental health crises with their finances will be missed.

Breathing Space should be offered automatically for longer-term admissions under the Mental Health Act

Financial difficulty can have a severely detrimental impact on recovery. For example, a lack of stable accommodation, reduced income or a loss of future stability can all cause a delay in recovery. Automatically offering Breathing Space to people detained in hospital would help more people access respite from debt collection activity and help to ensure their finances do not hinder recovery.

Mental Health Breathing Space wouldn’t be suitable for everyone – lots of people are only detained short term. But for the one in five (21%) detentions which are typical of a longer duration, an automatic offer of the scheme within 14 days of detention under the Mental Health Act, has a real chance of making an immediate difference to people’s lives.

The scheme is an HMT initiative, but the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) play an important part in the implementation of Mental Health Breathing Space, alongside the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care. These bodies should work together to implement an automatic offer of Mental Health Crisis Breathing Space for people who are detained longer term. This would ensure that Breathing Space lives up to its full potential and can help those who are most at risk of falling into financial difficulty while in hospital. 

Breathing space creates the foundation for a crucial scheme that is forecast to help 54,000 people in mental health crises by 2030-31. Our recommendations would ensure that tens of thousands more people are supported and help minimise the financial harm caused by mental health crisis.