Helen Undy, Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health
Mental health, Covid and the Spending Review: let's not go back to 'normal'
26 November 2020
Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time this year walking around my local neighborhood pushing a pram. There’s one advert I keep seeing on billboards again and again; an advert for a bank which says:
‘Wherever you feel comfortable right now, we’re here to help’.
It stood out because that’s exactly what we’ve been calling for banks and other essential services to do for several years now – to make services work using the channels that people can use. Not everyone can get out of the house to a branch, not everyone can make a phone call or manage online banking. In fact, three quarters of people with mental health problems struggle with at least one commonly used communication channel – and yet most companies require us to make phone calls, navigate call centres or fill in online forms to access basic services.
But obviously it’s not mental health that the bank was thinking about with this ad, it was Covid. This year many more people have struggled to leave the house because of lockdown restrictions, often spending a lot longer online and trying to access services using the phone or web for the first time. While the pandemic has undoubtedly widened the divide between the financially comfortable and the struggling, making life disproportionately harder for people with mental health problems, improvements in accessibility may be one silver lining.
Only last week we saw Lloyds Banking Group respond to our research by announcing the introduction of their new carers card – a secondary bank card with limited permissions to allow a trusted person to withdraw cash or make payments on someone else’s behalf. This is a crucial accessibility tool, allowing people with mental health problems who may sometimes struggle to leave the house to share some financial management safely, without giving away their autonomy. Again, it was probably covid that gave this the final push it needed to launch – but with 16.4 million people in the UK admitting to knowing someone else’s PIN number, the demand should far outlast the pandemic.
Funding for mental health services
This year has also seen other services move online due to necessity, including the delivery of talking therapies and other mental health support. For some people this has been an improvement, removing another barrier to accessing support – but it’s important to remember that this isn’t true for everyone. Our research this year found that 86% of respondents with a mental health problem were worried about struggling to access mental health services as a result of coronavirus. High demand, long waiting times and difficulties navigating new online channels to access services are all likely to leave many people struggling without support.
The financial commitment to mental health services in yesterday’s Spending Review was very welcome, and if staffing issues can be managed it should help to reduce waiting times for services. But as lockdown restrictions ease in some areas it’s essential that we embrace multi-channel delivery of these services. For the digitally excluded, face-to-face services may be the only help they can access. For those who struggle to leave the house, online might be the only realistic route to support.
Let’s not go back to ‘normal’
The pandemic has taught us a lot, and fast. What’s essential is that in our rush to get ‘back to normal’ we don’t forget what some of the problems with ‘normal’ have been. I hope that the funding for mental health services can be used to deliver truly blended on- and offline support. That essential services providers don’t revert back to suggesting you ‘go into branch’ or make a telephone call for anything more complicated than a basic transaction. And that we continue to be more understanding about the variation in the levels of ability and comfort of different people to engage with services in different ways. Recovery from the pandemic will take a long time, but we will leave fewer people behind if we can make help available ‘wherever you feel comfortable’.
Mental Health Accessible is a suite of programmes supporting essential services providers – such as banks, energy suppliers and water companies – to better support their customers with mental health problems. If you would like to find out more about becoming a mental health accessible firm please contact Alice Rose who leads the programme via firstname.lastname@example.org.