Rob Smale, coaching consultant and Research Community member

My experience: the vicious cycle of money and mental health problems

14 May 2024

  • Rob Smale, a coaching consultant and member of Money and Mental Health’s Research Community, spoke at the launch of the charity’s latest research, Always on your mind. With his help, we’ve turned his powerful speech into a blog.
  • Reflecting on the findings of the report and its recommendations, Rob shares his experiences of the vicious cycle of financial difficulty and mental health problems. 
  • He calls for interventions to prevent people from experiencing these twin issues and discusses what changes he’d like to see. 

Hello, I’m Rob. In my previous life, I was an award-winning consultant, an industry-leading Executive Coach, former International President of my professional body, a trainer, lecturer, supervisor and expert in psychological wellbeing at work.

Hello, I’m Rob. I’ve been a poly addict, obsessive, depressive, in and out of psychiatric institutions, tried multiple times to end my life, been homeless, failed at intimate relationships, become isolated, self-destructive and angry. 

All while I’ve lived a life of financial and professional boom and bust.

The here and now

It’s these wildly different ways of being that have brought me to this point. In recovery, in social housing, no debt left, in receipt of benefits, with a small support network – but aware of the long-term damage these battles have done to my financial future, and knowing the insidious relationship between money and mental health.

If you have read Money and Mental Health’s research papers over the last 8 years you will know that they always come up with practical recommendations to solve the problems associated with managing finances when you have a mental health problem. Today, as a member of their Research Community – a group of 5,000 people with experience of mental health problems – I want to talk about their latest report, Always on your mind.

Not simply words on a page

What this new report does is prove what many of my peers and I have believed: that we, over time, are in a financial downward spiral. That the longer we struggle with our mental health or finances, the more likely we’ll struggle with the other.

We discussed the findings in the report at a recent coffee meet-up. Nobody was surprised but everyone was shocked. It’s horrific that it’s 11.1 times more likely that we will be out of work. And if we get into work we will be paid less. No less shocking, we are three times more likely to be behind on bills if our problems persist. 

But the part of the report that hit me in the gut? That 58% of the Research Community has been financially affected by our mental health for more than 5 years. 39% for more than 10 years.

But, of course, the other part of this report is equally frightening. Financial problems can trigger and deepen mental health problems. The longer the financial problems last, the more likely you are to develop depression or anxiety. And it comes as no surprise that the biggest killer of men under 50 is suicide when the two big thematics for suicide in that group are financial or relationship problems.

My money and mental health in numbers

I love the way the researchers weave numbers and stories, so I thought I’d give it a go. 

I sat and wrote out a timeline of crisis points for my mental health and my financial health. It’s no surprise that sometimes my mental health was affected by financial problems and sometimes my financial problems were caused by poor mental health. 

As I am in my late 50s, the list was quite long but I hope it gives you a sense of living a life trapped in the money and mental health cycle.

£6,500 – the first store credit debt I ran up in my 20s during a manic period.

£42,000 – the pension pot I destroyed in one year during a period of drug addiction and unemployment in my 30s.

8 years and 15 days – since the last time I woke up restrained in a hospital bed.

1 suitcase, 1 backpack and 2 carrier bags – the total of my possessions when I became homeless in my 40s.

£78 – my phone bill when I accessed Premium Service on my mobile after I updated my phone contract but the safety flags on my account were not migrated.

4 years – the time it took to get PIP sorted out.

420 hours – the therapy it took to get back to this point.

1 – the number of times in 10 years I have been asked by a mental health professional how my finances are.

3 – the number of times I have been asked by a service provider if I should be on the vulnerable clients list.

£0 – the amount I have in my pension pots.

15.4% – the difference between a credit building credit card rate and the standard rate for my bank.

274 – the total number of job applications I’ve submitted over the last 18 months. The result: 5 interviews, 0 offers.

£1.78 – my total savings before the last cost of living payment.

I think that’s probably enough. It’s chaotic, it’s real and – having read the research – probably less unusual than I thought.

Asking for and receiving help

The way our society works puts the majority of the risk onto the individual – whether you’re applying for credit, gambling, informing providers if you are in trouble, or dealing with the DWP.

There are a few problems with this. People with mental health issues may have varying levels of ability or confidence, depending on their condition and their capacity to manage this. This can lead to shame, fear, embarrassment, anxiety and avoidance.

Some service providers help if you disclose a problem. Some ask if you are vulnerable. That’s only useful if disclosing makes a difference to the service you receive.

Regardless of the service or provider, I’d like to make two very simple suggestions: 

  1. Please may I nominate one of my support network to be able to help or step in when I’m unwell? 
  2. Can I disclose once and have providers share the information?

I realise that sounds simple but, at present, I know of no commercial organisation that allows it. My GP allows a family member to talk to health professionals on my behalf – all it takes is an annual letter giving my permission.

The report contains many other recommendations for how the cycle between money and mental health problems can and should be broken – from joining up support services, stronger partnerships and data-sharing across sectors, and the introduction of a government taskforce. With the right interventions at the right time, this cycle is not inevitable. 

Let’s give it the time and resources it needs.