Helen Undy, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health

Mental health awareness week...again?

Almost exactly one year ago I sat down to write a blog to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. It was my first day at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute and it felt like the beginning of something exciting. I was the first member of the team to join after Polly, our Director – we had laptops and lots of ideas – but no office yet, and as we tweeted our way through Mental Health Awareness week I think it would be fair to say that the link between financial difficulties and mental health was hardly a hot topic.

So, as Mental Health Awareness Week rolls to a close for another year, it seemed like a good time to take a moment to look back – are things actually improving?

Making headlines

Well the last twelve months have certainly felt eventful. It’s been the year Lady Gaga opened up about her PTSD, Prince Harry talked about seeking counselling and the Royals put their weight behind mental health campaigning, Gail Porter shared the impact of going bankrupt on her mental health, and Adele spoke out about her experiences of postpartum depression.

In the policy world (and with much less fanfare) the Government’s flagship talking therapies programme finally hit its 50% recovery rate target, the Prime Minister committed to offering mental health awareness training in every school and, following our campaign, committed to ending charging for an essential form needed by people with mental health problems and in debt crisis. It may sound like a bureaucratic detail, but this commitment, if carried forward by the next government, could make a real, practical difference to thousands of people in the most difficult of circumstances.

But it’s not been a year of dramatic policy change in mental health.

With the Five Year Forward View having already set out a clear roadmap, and Brexit taking up a significant chunk of Parliamentary time – the last year hasn’t exactly been one to remember for mental health on the green (and red) benches. Mental health getting a mention in Theresa May’s first speech as PM was certainly notable, but it’s been more about the headlines than meaty policy change.

Mental health and financial services

Outside of the Westminster bubble though, Brexit has not been the only game in town and we’ve started to see mental health, and the links between money and mental health in particular, inspiring some more practical action in less expected places. After our research established the key ways in which mental health problems can affect our ability to earn, spend and manage our money, we’ve seen the financial services industry set in train work to develop new products and processes to help level the playing field. In March we partnered with the Financial Conduct Authority to run a two-day ‘techsprint’ bringing together over 100 developers from some of the UK’s biggest banks and technology firms to create some of these tools – many of which we hope will be available to the public soon.

Only recently Barclays announced new controls allowing customers to ‘turn off’ their cards, set lower limits on ATM withdrawals or to block online shopping. While these are marketed as tools to reduce scams, they could bring significant benefits for customers who struggle to control their spending in periods of poor mental health.

Talking about mental health is not new in financial services – particularly not in collections and arrears. But taking an ambitious approach to designing products and services that can prevent people with mental health problems from ending up in debt in the first place, is. And this is an area we hope to see grow even further in the next twelve months.

A little less conversation, a little more action

And in politics? Well Brexit will still be the big game in town, but it looks like we might start to see a bit more action in mental health policy too. If re-elected, Theresa May has promised to scrap the ‘flawed’ 1983 Mental Health Act and instead bring forward a new Mental Health Treatment Bill, bringing with it the opportunity to look again at the issue of mental capacity in financial services. And if there’s a change of government, that brings with it new opportunities to drive some exciting change.

Whoever makes up the Government, we want the next twelve months to bring some very practical progress for mental health policy. Headlines are helpful, but we need more than that. We’d like to see the government fund a trial of debt advice to boost recovery rates in talking therapies, to end the six week wait for Universal Credit and improve budgeting support, to crack down on high-cost credit and a whole lot more. Let’s see where we get to by Mental Health Awareness Week 2018.