Helen Undy, Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health

Reasons to be cheerful

15 December 2021

So here we are again. Rounding up a year that has been anything but normal, and one in which the link between money and mental health problems has been exposed as potentially never before:

  • Household finances have taken a kicking, with inflation up, energy prices rising, the Universal Credit increase removed and the furlough scheme coming to an end. This has been particularly the case for those who went into the pandemic juggling debts or in a financially precarious position.
  • Rates of mental health problems are still above pre-pandemic levels, although down from their peak in 2020.
  • People with mental health problems have been amongst the hardest hit financially by the pandemic, more than twice as likely to have relied on credit or borrowing to cover every day spending — for example, on food or heating (26% compared to 11%).

It’s been a difficult year for all of us, and it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness about where we’re headed. So on a dark wintery day, I wanted to make note of a reminder that we *are* making progress. Reflecting back on where we were a year ago, largely unvaccinated, looking into the barrel of a long January lockdown, it’s frankly amazing how much we’ve all achieved. Here’s five things that did get better this year:

  1. No one in NHS mental health crisis care should be hit by interest, fees, charges or collections activity on their debts since May this year. The Breathing Space debt respite scheme began in the spring, including the provision that we campaigned to protect people receiving mental health crisis treatment.
  2. Tens of thousands of information leaflets and posters about money and mental health reached GP’s surgeries. Following our report on the power of information to help prevent financial difficulties for people with mental health problems, we partnered with our friends at Mind to support the development of a range of materials, funded by Barclays. Tag us on social media if you see one in the wild!
  3. Standard debt collection letters became less threatening, and included signposting for support. The improved letters were introduced from June this year as a result of our campaign, and after our research highlighted the devastating link between intimidating debt collection tactics and suicide.
  4. Gambling card controls are now available on 90% of current accounts. Following our programme of work with financial services firms, funded by the Gambling Commission, and work with friends in the sector like PFRC – the ability to turn off gambling transactions on your debit cards is now available to nearly all UK current account holders, a radical transformation from where we were two years ago.
  5. People can now take part in benefits health assessment through a wider range of communication channels. We know that face-to-face assessments are not accessible for everyone with a mental health problem, and we’re pleased that DWP has responded to our evidence by making a wider range of channels available, including piloting an (optional) online PIP claims service.

And three signs for optimism for what’s to come in 2022:

  1. Our campaign to tackle online scam ads through the government’s Online Safety Bill is gathering huge momentum, backed by everyone from committees of MPs and Peers, to the financial regulator, the City of London police and even Richard Branson. The pressure on the government to respond is huge, and we’ll be keeping up the focus on this next year.
  2. Our ‘Set up to fail’ campaign – aiming to make it easier for people to get help navigating the benefits system, has also now been backed by 11 national organisations and  heavily discussed in Parliament. We know DWP are looking into our asks, and we hope 2022 will be the year that Universal Credit becomes less of an opaque and confusing system.
  3. The regulators are listening. This year the Financial Conduct Authority published radical plans to introduce a new ‘Consumer Duty’ to raise standards for all consumers, and detailed guidance for firms on the fair treatment of vulnerable consumers. This included our recommendations on things like accessible communication channels and the importance of understanding the needs of customers with mental health problems when designing products. If fully implemented and enforced this should lead to real improvements for people with mental health problems. 

I’m always proud of our team – and by ‘team’ I’m including our staff, trustees, advisory board and the wider team in our Research Community who take part in our research and share their stories to support our work. But this year, I really am astounded by all you’ve achieved. Amid childcare chaos, intermittent isolations, family illness and bereavement, financial difficulty, mental health problems and the deafening pandemic anxiety that’s hard to ignore, you pulled out all the stops to make life better for people with money and mental health problems, which is more of us than ever. 

Thank you from me, and on behalf of the millions that this work will touch. I know Christmas is tough for many people, but I hope you find time for a rest and to take a moment to feel proud of the part you’ve played – we’re going to need you next year.