Dom Taylor, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
How local government can support people with mental health problems through the cost of living crisis
5 May 2022
As voters across the country cast their ballots today, they do so during a time of spiralling prices and growing uncertainty. Although many of the tools needed to mend a national crisis belong to Westminster, we mustn’t lose sight of the critical role local authorities can play in softening the blow of rising costs – particularly for those of us on low-incomes and/or who face mental health problems. Regardless of the outcome of today’s elections, here are a few steps local government can take to ease the pressure of the cost of living crisis for these groups.
Improve access to specialist money advice services
In one part of a recent report, we consider the key duties held by local government under the Care Act and the Mental Health Act, for individuals receiving secondary mental health care. Through this legislation, councils must not only ensure that residents have access to relevant financial guidance, advice and assistance, but that sufficient aftercare is provided to individuals discharged from psychiatric hospitals. By this measure, guaranteeing access to money advice services for secondary mental health care patients is essential to local authorities fulfilling their statutory obligations.
The findings of our report indicate that more than eight in ten (86%) respondents endured financial harm while under secondary mental health care – with seven in ten (72%) reporting that they struggled to pay for essentials, such as food and heating. Stark as these figures are, they were gathered before the latest wave of increased living costs. As such, we might anticipate the demand for accessible money advice services for recipients of secondary mental health care to be more pronounced. It is vital, now more than ever, that local authorities act upon this.
Make it easier to get support with council tax
When we think of rising household expenditure, we tend to think of our spending as consumers – be it through pricier groceries, or more costly energy bills. Local authorities can’t meaningfully affect these outgoings, but they can change how they offer support for another considerable expenditure: council tax. Making sure that support in paying council tax is both accessible and transparent for all has to be a priority.
Accessibility can be improved through proactively asking for, and respecting, people’s communication needs. For people with acute anxiety, for instance, the thought of a long phone call concerning their council tax payments could prove enough for them to avoid the process altogether. For others, wading through reams of complicated letters could be a huge barrier when already facing poor mental health. But, in a survey of our Research Community, only one in six (17%) of participants reported having been asked by their local council about their communication needs.
Making sure that council tax payers have their communication preferences respected is essential, but local authorities can go further in guaranteeing financial assistance gets to the right people. We reached out to our Research Community to gauge their understanding of available support for council tax payments. Over a third (34%) of respondents were not aware of the discounts available, and 43% did not know how to query or appeal a council tax decision. Furthermore, eight out of ten participants (82%) reported their local council did not provide information on available discounts in their standard communications.
A suitable response from local councils to this clear oversight should be to use clearer, simpler and non-stigmatising language in explaining eligibility criteria for assistance in paying council tax, particularly for discounts related to severe mental illness. This is vital to ensuring that struggling households can be more consistently signposted to any support they may be entitled to.
Time to act now
In a recent ONS study, 40% of surveyed adults that pay energy bills reported encountering some level of difficulty in affording the rising expenditure. While we’ve yet to see data outlining the impact this specific cost of living crisis is having on mental health, we know from our previous research that people in financial difficulty face obstacles that can worsen, and be worsened by, poor mental health. It goes without saying that the actions outlined above can’t bring the cost of living entirely under control, or undo the damage already dealt to people’s mental and financial wellbeing. They can, however, ease the level of distress experienced by consumers struggling to afford vital goods and services.