Merlyn Holkar, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Regulators and mental health: our joint breakfast roundtable

Mental health problems can make it harder to choose, use and pay for essential services, which can lead to financial difficulties or aggravate mental health problems. Individual firms have a role to play to make this easier – but sometimes things need to be changed across an industry. That’s where the regulators come in.

Yesterday morning we partnered with the UK Regulators Network (UKRN) to host a high-level roundtable meeting with the regulators who set the rules for your bank, water company and energy and telecoms providers. The event aimed to increase understanding and awareness of mental health problems, and to explore how the experience of customers with mental health problems can be improved. We shared new insights from our Research Community, outlining some of the main problems that people with mental health problems face when accessing essential services, and discussed what the regulators could do to help.

You can read a blog on the new research here.

We’re grateful to Dermot Nolan, Chair of UKRN and CEO of Ofgem, the energy regulator, for chairing our discussion, and to speakers from the Financial Conduct Authority, the Legal Services Board and the Essential Service Access Network for talking us through their existing work on vulnerable consumers, and how this relates to mental health, as well as sharing personal experiences of mental health problems.

Common problems, common answers?

As attendees reflected on their respective sectors, it became clear that many of the issues that consumers with mental health problems face are common across essential services. The person is the same, whether they’re dealing with a gas company or a broadband provider, and to some extent they’ll have the same struggles and difficulties, regardless of the provider involved, or the regulator that they sit under. There was some enthusiasm for developing common standards across essential services, so that people with mental health problems might expect a certain level of treatment and support, and that providers don’t take wildly different approaches to this support, which could be confusing.

Several attendees also impressed the importance of building upon good work that has already been done. This would mean first understanding the current performance of companies in each industry and then sharing best practice examples to encourage improved service provision by other companies. It was also acknowledged that there are lessons to be learnt from across sectors, and that greater collaboration between regulators could help to raise the overall standard of services for customers with mental health problems.

The UKRN, as the body that brings together regulators to tackle cross-sector issues, could provide a helpful platform for this sort of collaboration.

The problem of disclosure

Essential service providers have improved their treatment of vulnerable customers in recent years, but it seems that many people with mental health problems are missing out on the additional support and guidance that is now available. Our research shows that people are often reluctant or unable to disclose information about their health problems, for reasons including stigma and a lack of apparent incentive, or difficulties using the telephone, which is often the only way to contact a provider. In practice, this means that most people with mental health problems don’t tell their essential service providers, and as a result aren’t offered much needed support.

Attendees clearly recognised this disclosure problem as a major obstacle to supporting consumers with mental health problems, and were understanding of the emotional and psychological impact of opening up to a stranger in a call centre and talking about mental health. There seemed to be a real appetite for making the process of disclosure easier to engage with, and more user friendly, so that more consumers with mental health problems access support, at less of a personal cost.

This is surely welcome intent, but raises a further challenge. How can we support those consumers who might never feel comfortable disclosing information about their mental health problems? We think that there is opportunity for regulators to share their current approaches and learn from one another.  In the energy sector, Ofgem’s “vulnerability principle” is one approach to this dilemma. The principle takes the onus off the consumer, requiring providers to proactively identify customers who might need support, rather than reactively waiting for a disclosure. We’re keen to see how effective this principled approach is in practice.

Next steps

Here at Money and Mental Health, we’ll continue to produce guidance for essential service providers, to help them to understand and better support their customers with mental health problems. We also hope to continue working with regulators to build common principles across these vital industries. In the coming months we’ll be reflecting further on yesterday’s discussion and developing our ideas about the role of regulation in breaking the links between money and mental health problems.