Helen Undy, Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health

Introducing: Mental Health Accessible standards for essential services

25 June 2019

Last night I spent nearly two hours trying to fix my broadband. The company phone line was closed, so I tried live chat, which kept being too busy to connect me. When I did get through I got my PIN wrong – thankfully I managed to remember my ‘secret word’, but then just when we were getting somewhere my signal dropped, I got cut off and the record of my conversation was lost. Because I had no wifi I ended up using all my monthly data allowance on my mobile trying to fix it. In the end I gave up without the internet fixed, with a bigger phone bill, and very frustrated.

This is probably a familiar story – managing essential services such as banking, broadband, water and electricity can too often be frustrating and difficult. But if you’re struggling with your mental health, these basic tasks can be even harder. Mental health problems and their treatments can affect our cognitive and psychological functioning, causing symptoms including:

  • Reduced short-term memory
  • Increased impulsivity
  • Social anxiety and communication difficulties
  • Low motivation and depleted energy
  • Reduced problem solving and planning abilities.

These symptoms can make opening post, making telephone calls or navigating complex online forms an almost impossible task, and one that causes acute distress.

“I put things off as long as possible and get stressed – this leads to me developing a stutter when I talk to people. If things don’t go according to the script in my head I either burst into tears or get aggressive and have to put the phone down.” – Research Community member

Admin anxiety

Our research found that more than half of people with mental health problems (54%) have serious difficulties using the phone to carry out essential admin, experiencing symptoms including heart palpitations, sweating and shaking when trying to call a bank, energy company or utilities provider. More than one in five (22%) people with a recent mental health problem say that have had a panic attack dealing with essential services.

“I’ve had panic attacks and less often suicidal ideation due to the stress of trying to deal with these companies. I’ve felt very low when I ask for help and they don’t seem to want to help me.” – Research Community member

As well as causing distress, these difficulties are leaving many people with mental health problems ‘locked out’ of essential services – unable to get the service they need, stuck paying for a service they don’t, or seriously out of pocket due to escalating fees and charges. This is one reason why people with mental health problems are 3.5 times as likely to be in problem debt.

Levelling the playing field

We’re all used to companies making adjustments for people with physical or sensory conditions, like braille letters, ramps or hearing loops — it’s time that the same was true for mental health.

That’s why today we’re really excited to be launching Mental Health Accessible – an ambitious new initiative to help companies better meet the needs of the one in four of their customers who are experiencing mental health problems. We’ve produced a clear set of accessibility standards for mental health that firms can follow, so they know what to do, and together with our Research Community we’ll assess firms against them – so they know how they’re doing.

Lloyds Bank is partnering with us to pilot the new Accessibility Standards for Mental Health. It will be the first bank to be assessed against these new standards, and is committed to using this insight to improve access to their services for people with mental health problems. After the pilot we plan to make these standards more widely available, and hope to work with more banks, energy firms, utilities companies, telecoms and more.

You can’t ask, you don’t get

Until now, companies have encouraged people to disclose their mental health problems and then offered support when they do. The intentions behind this are good, but as an approach it’s flawed. Many people with mental health problems either don’t know they’re ill, or can’t or don’t want to tell a company like a bank. Only offering support to those who can ask for it means that only a small minority will ever get help.

Our accessibility standards are based on the principle of ‘Universal Design’, the idea that an environment should be designed so that it can be accessed by everyone. For example, offering people a better range of communication channels to get in touch, using simpler ID verification methods and sharing a record of conversations, would all help to overcome some of the accessibility barriers associated with poor mental health. But they’d also help everyone who, like me, has spent a frustrating evening trying to get their broadband working.

Get involved

If you work for an essential services firm, whether it’s a financial services, telecoms or utility provider, we want you to get involved. By signing your firm up to be assessed against the standards, you’ll get a unique insight into the experiences of customers experiencing mental health problems. And by taking steps to make your service more accessible, you’ll also improve the service you offer all your customers.

This project has been made possible through support from the Inclusive Economy Partnership – which is driven by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Cabinet Office –and Nesta.