Merlyn Holkar, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Introducing our new checklist for debt advice services

12 August 2020

Free debt advice saves lives, and these services are more important now than ever, as the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic starts to bite.

“It was a life saver. It meant I didn’t worry about debt and could start again without debt. I didn’t have to take so many tablets.” – Expert by experience

And given that half of people with a debt problem also have a mental health problem and these problems are often closely entwined, it’s essential that debt advice services are designed with mental health in mind and that advisers have what they need to support clients who are unwell.

Our new report, Help along the way, looks at some of the challenges that people with mental health problems can face when trying to get support, and the difficulties that advisers can have supporting clients with mental health problems. We set out a range of recommendations for regulators, funders and providers of debt advice, to address these challenges and make the system work better for people with mental health problems.

Alongside the report we’ve published a best practice checklist for debt advice providers. This sets out eight steps that providers should take to make their services more accessible for people with mental health problems. In this blog I’ll pick out two key steps.

Present complex information clearly

Debt advice is complicated. There are lots of moving parts in our financial lives, and “debt solutions” like Debt Management Plans and bankruptcy work in a variety of ways and come with different terms. As a result, providers often share large amounts of technical information with their clients. This is a lot for anyone to deal with, but it can be particularly challenging for people experiencing mental health problems. Common symptoms like low motivation and difficulties concentrating can make lengthy advice or information documents seem insurmountable.

“It was harder to deal with as they overwhelmed me with information and rules I didn’t know about then left me to be responsible for them when I was on benefits in the first place for having mental health issues.” – Expert by experience

We’re calling on debt advice providers to design all written materials with these difficulties in mind, and to user-test them with people who struggle to process complex information. Small changes like highlighting key bits of information and simplifying technical language can make a huge difference for clients, and will make advice easier to follow.

Provide post-advice support

Good advice sessions can provide a powerful sense of relief and hope, but resolving financial difficulties is usually a long term project, and people with mental health problems often don’t get enough follow-up support to help them stick to plans over time.

“It’s very hard to stick to it without support and having mental health issues and learning disability makes it hard to follow.” – Expert by experience

Advisers recognise this too. Life happens. Financial shocks can derail even the best laid plans, and clients can find it harder to follow advice if their mental health gets worse. These are common, predictable challenges that many debt advice clients struggle with.

“Help throughout the plan – recognising that mood goes up and down and that threatening letters have a massive impact… Something positive to make me feel like I am making progress – more than the annual statement.” – Expert by experience

To help, we’re calling on debt advice providers to offer more support to help clients follow their advice over time. Providers should equip their advisers with practical tools to help clients with ongoing money management, like budgeting apps, and should send clients messages of encouragement and reassurance as they work through their plan.

These are just a few examples of steps providers can take to make debt advice more effective for people with mental health problems. For more information you can read our best practice checklist here, and read our full report on debt advice, Help along the way, here.