Lee Osborne, Senior Mental Health Community Support Worker, and Mark Trewin, Mental Health Service Manager, Bradford Metropolitan District Council

Recovery space - a Local Authority's perspective

In Bradford, we are lucky to have a great mental health partnership – with NHS, voluntary sector, Police and Local Authority social care staff working together to support people. Bradford is a brilliant city to work in, but it has struggled with the effects of austerity and complicated new benefits.

Our integrated community mental health teams have agreed that access to advice and support for people on welfare benefits is vital.  In order to achieve this, we have staff in mental health services who support service users with benefits, money and housing, in addition to commissioning specialist welfare and debt advice as part of the council’s responsibilities under the Care Act.

Why are integrated mental health and advice services needed?

Poverty is a major issue for the people who use our services. NHS and social work staff in Bradford support people to claim the correct benefits, reduce poverty and support recovery. Many people become overwhelmed by debt – caught in a situation where they feel unable to respond to or even open mail. Some people make decisions when unwell that lead to debt and financial stress later, or struggle to make decisions at all. Assisting them to resolve this crisis then becomes the focus of our work, rather than supporting stability and recovery.

As highlighted in Recovery Space, debt can quickly build up and creditors often increase the pressure to repay. This can cause a great deal of debt related stress – which the people we work with are particularly vulnerable to. The anxiety and sense of shame caused by debt can also often lead to people being unable to seek support and means they may end up suffering in silence. Some people find it too difficult to maintain contact with a debt advice worker. This can not only mean their financial difficulties get worse, but given the toxic link between money and mental health, can also impede their recovery.

Mental health, benefits and financial insecurity

People with long term mental health difficulties can spend many years on a fixed benefit income. This often results in no opportunity to save or to deal with everyday financial needs or emergencies. In Bradford, we are focussed on supporting people to work towards recovery, to access employment and break the cycle of debt and poverty, but this is a challenge for many people.

It is common for people who use our services to run out of money. Sometimes ill health leads to extra expenditure – often unexpected bills or delayed benefits are the cause. In past years we have been able to support people to apply for crisis funds or small emergency loans, but now a food bank voucher and a once a year £80 gas/electric meter top up are all that are available. Advice from specialist debt and welfare agencies is commissioned by the local authority and these agencies are very good, but like many services, the resources are overstretched.

Since the welfare reforms, our community mental health team has had to increase both NHS and local authority resources given to benefit crisis work, as people are experiencing severe financial difficulties. It would clearly be better if we could always concentrate on mental health recovery work – but if someone has no money for food, heating or rent, and no access to emergency funds, then finances has to become our focus. If the Government’s Breathing Space scheme was extended to include those in mental health crisis, as called for by Money and Mental Health, the break from creditors would not only provide people with the space needed to recover, but could also allow service providers to focus on providing the mental health support that is so desperately needed.

Improving quality of life

Mental health professionals are committed to supporting the people who use our service to improve the quality of their lives. Increasingly this involves a degree of expertise in debt support and welfare benefits – expertise that Bradford council have thankfully actively commissioned. However, many councils in England are not currently able to provide this support.

If Breathing Space was to include those in mental health crisis, tens of thousands of people struggling with a mental health crisis and problem debt simultaneously would benefit enormously. This is why we back Money and Mental Health’s Recovery Space initiative.