Francesca Smith, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Introducing: Francesca Smith

11 November 2022

Experiencing a mental health problem can mean people face barriers to earning and managing money. And lower average incomes and difficulties managing tight budgets contribute to people with mental health problems being three and a half times more likely to be in problem debt than those without. As someone who has themselves been affected by mental health problems, I’ve always been interested in mental health policy and eager to get people talking about their mental health. 

However, I was drawn to this role because of its focus on an often politely avoided dimension of mental wellbeing: money. Money can be a source of stress and worry for many families, and at times has been for my own.

While the team has given me a warm welcome and dissolved any new job nerves I had, it’s clear that I have joined the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute at an incredibly critical time. As the cost of living crisis takes a toll on people’s mental health as well as their pockets, it’s more crucial than ever that both people’s mental and financial wellbeing are supported. Throughout my first week, I have quickly learned how the team is addressing the effects of the cost of living crisis on relationships between money and mental health with concern and commitment in equal measure.

What money and mental health means to me

I spent my late teens wanting to be a lawyer, but the pandemic forced me to press pause on my aspirations and afforded me time and space to reevaluate what I wanted to do. I have always been passionate about social justice, having previously volunteered in two international development charities and been involved in Stonewall’s campaign for LGBTQ-inclusive education. So, working in policy seemed like a natural fit.

While I am new to working in the third sector, I am not new to the topics surrounding money and mental health. During my degree, I spent time studying the relationship between housing tenure and physical and mental health. I explored the ways the financial security of owning a home, or equally the financial burden of a mortgage and maintaining a home, can affect wellbeing. I discovered that people who were physically and mentally unwell found it more difficult to make rent or mortgage payments on time and were more likely to release equity or to extend borrowing. This is partly due to the impact of poor wellbeing on a person’s ability to build savings which could help them stay afloat in a time of crisis. I found the systemic problems entwined with these issues frustrating. It seems apt, then, that I have ended up at an organisation that looks to create systemic change to break the toxic cycle between money and mental health problems.

Getting stuck in

One of my first tasks here has been to deepen our understanding of how the cost of living crisis is impacting people with mental health problems, primarily by understanding some of the barriers people with mental health problems can face to accessing the government’s Energy Bills Support Scheme. I’ve been struck by the fact that, for someone with a mental health problem who uses a traditional prepayment meter, the act of leaving the house to claim the Energy Bill discount voucher can in itself be a major challenge. Considering that prepayment meters can also be a more expensive way of paying for energy – and those using a prepayment meter are already more likely to be experiencing financial hardship – this additional challenge is extremely concerning. At Money and Mental Health, we are resolute in our mission to use this information to advocate for people with mental health problems and to ensure support services are accessible for everyone.

From next week I will begin working on a new policy note that explores ethnicity in relation to money and mental health. Having grown up in an ethnically diverse community in East London, I have always been conscious of how the challenges some of us face are experienced unevenly among different ethnic communities. For this reason, I’m excited to consider how best to inclusively support everyone with their mental and financial wellbeing, regardless of ethnic background. 

I look forward to contributing to the work of Money and Mental Health, particularly by engaging with our nearly 5,000 strong Research Community, who sit at the core of everything we do. They offer the kind of rich insight into issues that often only lived experience can provide. I hope to do justice to the experiences that the Research Community are kind enough to share by producing insightful and impactful research, and to emulate the inspiring passion and dedication of my new colleagues.