Nikki Bond, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Prevention is better than cure

3 December 2019

People experiencing mental health problems are three and a half times more likely to be in financial difficulty than those without mental health problems. Much of our work over the last three years has been aimed at making sure that people in this difficult situation can get help when they need it. But in our new report, Information is power, we’ve taken a step back to ask what more could be done to support people experiencing mental health problems to avoid financial difficulties in the first place.

Too little, for too few

We know that mental health problems commonly affect people’s finances – whether it’s through time off work and reduced income, or changes in spending driven by symptoms like increased impulsivity. Yet our research found that only one third of research participants (33%) who had received medical care for a mental health problem were spoken to about financial management by a health professional.

Just one in twenty participants who had seen a GP (6%) had been offered information about or support with managing money. This rose significantly in secondary mental health services where over a third (36%) of respondents who had seen a mental health specialist, and one in five (20%) who were supported by a therapist or counsellor, were spoken to about managing money. 

While it’s good to know that some people are getting help in secondary services, it’s not enough. Most people never reach the threshold for support through secondary mental health services, with nine out of ten people receiving treatment for a mental health problem doing so in primary care.

Early intervention

Our research found that people experiencing mental health problems want earlier support to avoid financial difficulties. Some people wanted information about the links between mental health problems and managing money. Others wanted emotional support and validation that the difficulties they faced with money were not personal failings, but associated with the cognitive and psychological effects of their mental health problems.

“I wish I’d been more aware of the repercussions of mental health on finances before my mental health struggles began. I thought my increasing debts were a personal failing, which worsened my mental health. If it had been widely acknowledged that those suffering from poor mental health might struggle to control their spending and face up to the problem head-on, I might not have felt so alone and like such a failure, and I would have been encouraged to seek help rather than keep the shame to myself and let the problem get worse.”

Our research also suggests that the earlier we can reach people to offer support, the more likely they are to be able to take in and act on information and advice given too. Nearly two-thirds of research participants (64%) with experience of mental health problems think they would have recovered more quickly if they had been helped to manage money better.

A multipronged approach

In light of this, we believe primary healthcare services offer a crucial opportunity to ensure people with mental health problems receive this kind of preventative support. We know that professionals across primary and secondary healthcare services are hugely stretched, and that where support is being offered, people are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. But with a renewed focus on prevention, there is an opportunity for GP’s and other primary care professionals to offer a Very Brief Intervention on preventative money advice for people experiencing mental health problems – similar to existing interventions to address smoking and domestic abuse

Offering support via healthcare services however, would only reach the four in ten people (39%) who are receiving treatment for their mental health. The remaining six in ten people (61%) who are experiencing a common mental health problem but are either not receiving treatment or are not diagnosed, will not be reached. Therefore, a preventative approach needs to cast the net more widely. 

We believe the Money and Pensions Service and Public Health England have a key role to play in this, by working together to develop and distribute materials that include information and emotional and practical support about preventing financial difficulties associated with mental health problems. We propose that these preventative informative materials could be distributed in a range of everyday settings, including local authorities, employers, essential service providers and the benefits system. 

Offering this kind of information and advice across a variety of settings that people experiencing mental health problems are likely to have contact with, is one way to ensure people receive the support they need to avoid financial difficulties – and the potentially devastating consequences they can bring.