Georgia Preece, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Too many people with severe mental illness are left struggling alone with their finances

31 March 2022

Imagine you’re really unwell with your mental health. Maybe you’ve even been admitted to hospital, the last thing you want to be thinking about is making sure the bills are paid – but that doesn’t stop them coming through the door. For people who are very unwell, or experiencing mental health crisis, care and treatment from secondary mental health services, provided by community teams, psychiatric hospitals or recovery colleges, can save lives.  But despite how vital secondary care services are, they often overlook what can be a key factor in people’s mental health crisis and recovery – their finances. This means many people struggling with severe mental illness are left without adequate support to manage their finances, which can lead to people going without essentials and building up debts. With the cost of living crisis worsening, it’s vital that this changes.

Today, we’ve published a new report which looks at the financial experiences of people while under the care of secondary mental health services, and makes recommendations for how to prevent and resolve financial difficulties for people who are acutely unwell. Find out more about the research below.

Income drops are commonplace for people under secondary mental health care

Being acutely unwell means that, for many, it can be impossible to work and difficult to keep up with managing benefits claims. In a survey of over 200 people with experience of receiving secondary mental health care, almost seven in ten people (68%) said they experienced an income drop whilst under the care of secondary mental health services. 

“The income drop made my mental health worse, but I did not feel there was any point talking about it, because I knew that nothing could be done. As [I’m] self-employed on zero hours contracts, I cannot earn money when I am housed for my own safety in a mental health unit.Expert by Experience

When we’re well, we might be able to manage an income drop, for example by adjusting our budget. However, people who are acutely unwell are likely to be experiencing cognitive and psychological difficulties, such as reduced concentration, difficulties with clarity of thought, and problems with memory or impulsivity – which can make it difficult to manage their finances. 

Our research found that it was commonplace for people to experience financial harm while under the care of secondary mental health services, with more than eight in ten (86%) survey respondents reporting that they had experienced devastating financial consequences while receiving secondary care services. Over half (55%) of people surveyed missed a payment for an essential bill like rent or council tax, and seven in ten (72%) people struggled to pay for essentials such as food or heating. For some people, who are acutely unwell for prolonged periods of time, the financial impact of missing bills and payments can accumulate and leave people in overwhelming levels of problem debt. 

How government and health care providers can support people in secondary care

Supporting people who are acutely unwell to prevent and resolve financial difficulties is no mean feat. But fortunately there are a range of organisations that can intervene to help people avoid and resolve financial difficulties. Below, we set out two key recommendations that would go far in protecting people from the financial fallout of an acute episode of mental health problems —during the cost of living crisis and beyond.

  1. Financial prompts should be included in Care and Treatment Plans. The government is currently in the process of reforming the Mental Health Act – the main legislation that determines the rights and treatment of people with mental health problems. As part of this reform, the government is proposing to make Care and Treatment Plans a statutory requirement, meaning that it will be a compulsory part of care. This is welcome news. But these reforms should go further. DHSC should include explicit prompts about financial difficulties in Care and Treatment Plan templates. This would mean that people receiving support in secondary care services would be routinely asked about their finances – and be offered referrals to support services to help resolve financial difficulties.
  2. Breathing Space should be automatically offered to people admitted to hospital. Mental Health Breathing Space already exists to give people experiencing mental health crises respite from their debts while in hospital, but this is currently at the discretion of specific mental health practitioners and is not routinely offered to all people in crisis. By offering Breathing Space automatically to people who are admitted to hospital on longer-term detentions, the mechanism would support those who are likely to be detained for a longer period, and who are therefore more likely to experience financial difficulties.

The recommendations outlined above, are part of a suite of protections to better support people to prevent and resolve financial difficulties. By targeting interventions at people under the care of secondary mental health services, we can begin to break the link between mental health problems and financial difficulties and ensure that financial difficulties are not an inevitability for people who are acutely unwell. 

To find out more, you can read our full report, Not a secondary issue, here.