Tasneem Clarke, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Recovery space - a social worker's perspective

As a social worker in a crisis team, ‘Breathing Space’ is what I’ve been waiting for

In social work we sometimes ask people the “magic wand” question: “If you had a magic wand, what would you change to make this situation better?” When I first started at Money and Mental Health and thought about my professional experience in a crisis team, my wish was for some sort of emergency pause button to make everyone stop bothering people about money when they are so acutely unwell that they can’t manage to wash themselves or answer the phone, let alone manage their debts and benefits problems.

It seemed an unrealistic aim, but fast-forward 18 months, and the perfect opportunity has now arisen, in the shape of the government’s Breathing Space scheme. It proposes a way for people accessing debt advice to put a freeze on fees, charges and debt collection activity, and our new report, Recovery Space, shows how necessary it is to expand this scheme to cover people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The costs of crisis

Our new research confirms that mental health crisis can have a crippling impact on people’s finances. It affects not only their ability to manage their finances, but often brings extra costs and reduction in income at the same time. The practitioners we spoke to described how this then delays recovery and impacts on NHS resources. Yet practitioners felt that their capacity to help with financial issues is limited not only by lack of time, but by a lack of practical, pragmatic, and legally recognised tools.

Mental health practitioners tell us that they often come across situations where a person is unable to focus on a pile of bills due to acute depression, or cannot even contemplate using the phone to speak to a benefits agency or creditor in a call centre because they believe government agencies are targeting them. Practitioners then find they often have no legally demonstrable right, nor practical way, to try and influence or control someone’s financial decisions, nor to negotiate with others on their behalf. Often they can only watch as disastrous consequences unfold.

“Mental capacity to manage finances is a minefield, particularly where people do not have insight into delusions about money. [I have seen an] eviction notice received due to debt, caused by refusal to pay Thames Water, as water is free from the sky.” – Practitioner

Lengthy phone calls can result in an agency or company simply saying they will only speak to the person themselves, sometimes refusing even to take information from the practitioner.

“Banks, utilities, councils, debt agencies all refuse to divulge information to professionals who are trying to unpick a patient’s financial situation and avoid threatening court letters which just raise anxiety levels. If someone is very unwell they are not going to agree to speak with creditors to give permission for professionals to speak  on their behalf. It’s a nightmare to try and help!” – Practitioner

This kind of communication is crucial. It may be the only way to ask a creditor to wait and negotiate a way that the person can pay back their debts, rather than charging fees and starting enforcement activity, which apart from causing huge stress can make the debt less likely to be fully repaid.

Finding space to recover

That’s why we are calling for the government’s proposed Breathing Space scheme to be expanded to include anyone accessing psychiatric inpatient care, or the care of a Crisis Resolution Team. This would mean that health and social care staff could simply and quickly notify the relevant organisations that someone needs a pause on their financial responsibilities. This would include a freeze on fees, charges and enforcement activity on their debts. It should also trigger a referral for onward debt advice once the person recovers from their mental health crisis. This would:

  • Align the Breathing Space scheme with principles of equality and non-discrimination, since it opens the scheme up for those who need to access debt advice but are currently unable to due to a mental health crisis
  • Provide consistency to individuals and carers by ensuring all creditors offer at least the same minimum standard of forbearance
  • Empower health professionals to ask services users about their financial situation, knowing there is something they can definitely do to help.

What a difference this recommendation could make to the people I work with as a social worker: it really would be like having a magic wand.