Alexis Stevens, Strategic Partnerships Manager, Money and Mental Health

World Bipolar Day: a free training asset for financial services firms

28 March 2024

  • World Bipolar Day (30 March) is marked each year to promote awareness and reduce stigma around Bipolar disorder.
  • There are many ways in which bipolar disorder and its symptoms can affect our finances. The Money and Mental Health Advice service has an advice page on ways people with bipolar can manage spending and finances.
  • This blog explores how financial services firms can better support their customers with bipolar disorder and help to prevent financial harm.
  • Money and Mental Health works with essential services firms to help them reduce harm, spot barriers to access and improve customer experience for customers with money and mental health problems.

Saturday is World Bipolar Day. It’s estimated that 1.3 million people in the UK live with bipolar, a condition characterised by fluctuations in mood, which can range from extreme highs (mania) to extreme lows (depression). 

For those of us with bipolar, changes in mood can come with changes in decision-making – people can have excessive urges for immediate gratification, overvaluing the present over the future. This is known as ‘present bias’ and is included in the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) Occasion paper on behavioural economics as a key behavioural bias that firms should pay attention to.

Bipolar and behavioural bias

Behaviour biases are beliefs or behaviours that can influence our thought processes and the decisions we make, and are not always rational. They are a natural part of being human, but this ‘present bias’ alongside impulsivity – another common symptom of bipolar – can play havoc with someone’s finances. 

That’s why today, we’re sharing something a little different.

What follows is a real life example, with some reflection and questions, that financial services firms can use in huddles, training sessions, and vulnerability forums to drive awareness and improvements for those living with bipolar and many more customers in vulnerable circumstances.

Friction + nudging = ?

I sit up in bed next to my sleeping toddler and partner who seem to be holding an impromptu free-jazz snoring concert. They give me the elbow if I attempt to take up any stage space in what was once my bed. Ostensibly, though, I am alone and conditions are perfect for some nighttime spending.

Wind the clock back a few years and spending is precisely what I’d have done – but it’s 2024, and I’ve put a block on online purchases with my bank.

Slightly irritated by the measures my better self has placed on my ability to splurge on a fishing rod I’ll never use, I flick to my emails to distract me from friction frustration.

I’ve got an email from my bank, offering me a credit card that I can apply for in ‘just five minutes’. This is an email they’ve sent to me a few times in recent weeks, but right now, it works. Since applying for credit is as close as I’ll get to doing any actual spending, I spring into action. The process is seamless – you barely know it’s there…

We all know where this ends.

So why is my bank wafting such easy access to credit in front of someone with a disclosed mental health problem, and a logged support need that’s being serviced by a spending block?

Is it a trick? Are they testing my resolve? Providing positive friction in one hand, and nudging towards easily accessible, unneeded credit in the other. Do they want me in a debt spiral?

I’d argue that is not it. The access the bank gave me to a spending block is pretty good proof of that – but it is not enough on its own. 

Symptoms associated with my disclosed mental health problem restrict my ability to make considered choices and increase my susceptibility to marketing. My bank’s nudges exploit these symptoms. Worse still, nudges toward credit, in parallel with providing a treatment strategy that protects me from unwanted spending, make for an inconsistent customer experience – driving disconnection, eroding trust and exacerbating mental health problems.

To come back to my professional experience – the most likely root cause of potential harm here is that this is an unhappy accident that led to unintended consequences. A mix of systems and processes, some more innovative than others, some working well together, others disconnected or completely siloed. 

So banks, what could and should you do?

Here are some questions a bank can ask itself to help consider behavioural bias in the design of products and services, to reflect on disclosure environments, and to better understand the impact of how systems do and don’t intersect:

  • What else could we give customers the option to share at the point of mental health disclosure that might have stopped this from happening?
  • When a customer adds a spending block, what other questions could a frontline staff member ask that could help the bank service the customer more holistically?  
  • What information could be sent to a customer with a disclosed mental health problem and known spending problems if they decide to take out a credit product? 
  • What options exist for customers to say no to this type of marketing? When are these options offered, and how often? 
  • Does your customer services and support strategy have a ‘product by product’ focus, or is it delivered at a ‘whole of customer’ level? If the answer is the former, how might a holistic view of your customer have changed the outcome in this case? 
  • Thinking about your own firm, what’s the likelihood your customers have had similar experiences and outcomes, and what could you change? 

For those working in vulnerability in financial services, it’s important to take the time to answer these questions and where needed, make changes for customers in vulnerable circumstances. 

We can help

We work with essential services firms to help them reduce harm, spot barriers to access and improve customer experience for customers with money and mental health problems. This work includes providing actionable insight drawn from the lived experience of thousands of customers across the UK living with mental health problems.

If you would like to understand more about how we can support you with improving outcomes for customers with bipolar and other mental health problems, please contact Rosie at [email protected].

World Bipolar Day is a great day to get started.