Practical advice for creditors to support customers with mental health problems
19 February 2020
Today, we’re delighted to be launching The Need to Know – a new guide to help creditors and debt collectors better understand and engage with customers experiencing both debt and mental health problems. This includes detailed information about how specific mental health conditions may affect a customer’s ability to manage and earn money. It also features practical advice on improving support to customers affected by these issues, when it may be appropriate to request additional evidence and how to deal with mental health crisis situations.
The guide is intended to help staff in collections departments in firms across all essential services sectors to support customers with mental health problems. Given that half of people in problem debt also have a mental health problem, collections staff, have regular contact with customers who are struggling with their mental health whether they know it or not.
Challenges to earning and managing money
The symptoms of mental health problems, such as reduced concentration, difficulties processing information, and reduced problem solving skills, can all make managing money harder. Earning money can be trickier too. People with mental health problems are more likely to be in low paid, part-time, insecure work, or their incomes may be reduced due to needing to take periods of time off. These difficulties with earning and managing money can lead to problem debt, and hinder people’s efforts to deal with those debts once they have occurred.
“On my worst days I can’t physically move because I’m literally paralysed by fear, needless to say this makes simple tasks like getting dressed and leaving the house to get to work impossible. More often and less severe is when my mind feels like it’s going to explode, I can’t communicate and can’t order my own thoughts.”
How creditors can improve support to customers
Three years ago, before working at Money and Mental Health, I worked in financial services supporting vulnerable customers to manage their accounts. The bulk of my work involved talking to people with severe mental illness, who were in overwhelming debt and didn’t know where to turn. At the time, it was standard industry practice to request medical evidence from customers to understand how their mental health impacted on their ability to repay their debts.
This was sometimes provided in the shape of a Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form – which had been completed by a healthcare practitioner supporting the customer. More often however, customers, feeling afraid and overwhelmed, would send in reams of sensitive paperwork with huge amounts of information about their mental health problems. Receiving this information always felt like an unnecessary intrusion into a person’s personal life and the paperwork invariably contained far more information than we required.
More often that not, a simple conversation with the customer would provide all the information needed to understand the impact of their mental health problems on their ability to earn and manage money. This is still the case. Customers are experts in their own lives and are best placed to understand and explain how their mental health impacts them.
This guide is intended to support those conversations. It seeks to help collections staff understand the challenges people face, support customers who might struggle to articulate their experiences, or lack the confidence to do so, and to help staff tailor support to the customer’s specific needs.
The case for medical evidence
The Need to Know guide also offers advice on when firms might need to request additional medical evidence – for example, when they’re considering a particular course of action and need to show why they might be treating a customer differently. This could include refunding charges, applying a period of breathing space, agreeing a partial settlement or writing off debts. It outlines a number of different sources that might evidence the customer’s mental health problems, without having to rely on lengthy and intrusive assessments, care plans or Debt and Mental Health Evidence Forms. Where these documents are required, however, this guide can help staff understand the information and diagnosis contained within them.
The guide should help the thousands of collections staff who take calls each year from customers experiencing mental health problems and suicidality. Alongside collections staff, I hope it also gives customers the confidence to share details of their mental health problems with their creditors, secure in the knowledge that they will be responded to compassionately and sensitively.