Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

A good signal from telecoms on the cost of living – but more is needed to support people with mental health problems

28 June 2022

Telecoms are one of the most essential services, helping us to keep in touch, manage our money and work from home. For people with mental health problems, telecoms can be especially important. Common symptoms of many conditions – like feeling anxious or having a low mood – can make it hard to leave the house. When you are stuck at home, being cut off from telecoms can mean being cut off from life, worsening our mental health and finances. That’s why it’s great to see the commitment announced today by leading players in the telecoms industry to support customers with the cost of living and keep them connected. But to make sure people with mental health problems feel the full benefit, more action is needed.

Commitments on treatment and help to reduce costs

The companies – including BT, Vodafone and Sky – have signed up to treat customers who are struggling with “compassion, understanding and as individuals”. While this should be expected from all firms already, reinforcing its importance is welcome. Members of our Research Community – a group of over 4,000 people with experience of mental health problems – have told us how inconsiderate treatment from firms can make everything much worse.

“I find they don’t understand your problem and I get very frustrated when I can’t get them to understand what it is that I want. They are obviously not trained to deal with people with mental health problems.” Expert by experience

Ensuring frontline staff have been given appropriate training and information on supporting customers with a mental health problem, as well as on the links between our finances and mental health, will mean they are better-placed to help.

Beyond that baseline, the providers have committed to “supporting customers struggling with their bills and to offer ways to keep them connected, such as allowing them to move to cheaper packages without charge or penalty, or agreeing manageable payment plans.” In national polling we conducted last month, we found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of us have had to change how we live in recent months due to the cost of living. Research Community members told us how they’d skipped meals or missed medical appointments to keep costs down. If you’re having a hard time keeping up with bills, the ability to cut your telecoms costs could be a useful step – potentially without the negative consequences of other options.

Making sure people with mental health problems really benefit

The pledge that all operators will “protect the connectivity of their customers known to be vulnerable as a priority” could be helpful for those of us with mental health problems. But polling we did last year found that just 13% of people with a mental health problem had ever told a telecoms company about their condition. If firms are really committed to keeping vulnerable customers connected, getting the disclosure journey right is vital. The reasons why people don’t disclose vary, but half of respondents who hadn’t disclosed said they didn’t think it was relevant, 18% said they were embarrassed and 12% said they didn’t think they would be believed.

“I find it humiliating having to tell companies about my mental health problems. They may make a note on your account but it doesn’t always filter down and standard letters still come.” Expert by experience

Firms need to do a much better job of promoting the support that’s available to customers with mental health problems, explaining practical changes that can be put in place and how sensitive information will be treated. Without that, the risk of vulnerable customers being disconnected will remain too high.

The firms have also agreed to work with the government to raise awareness of low-cost products among customers receiving Universal Credit. With three in four people with a mental health problem finding it difficult to use at least one communication channel, it’s vital that this information is shared across a variety of channels and that someone seeking to switch to a cheaper offer can do so in a way that meets their needs – not, for example, solely over the phone.

These commitments should help keep people with mental health problems connected, but there’s much more firms in all sectors can do. As a first step, they can consult our urgent guidance to energy firms, with lots of transferrable ideas on how to support people struggling with their money and mental health. We also work directly with firms, like Lloyds Banking Group, to help them evaluate their approaches and make practical changes. With price rises putting pressure on millions of us, the time for firms to act is now.