Breaking the link

Brian Dow

Experiencing money and mental health issues at the same time is awful, and not uncommon. For the four million people in this position every year, the effects can be devastating.

There is no doubt about the causal link between financial and mental ill-health – but this link is by no means inevitable.

The evidence

Mental health is rising up the political agenda, and quite rightly: one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Mental illness affects more people than cancer and is the single biggest cause of lost days at work in the UK.

But there is another side to mental illness which is rarely discussed – the link it has to money issues, including debt. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Of the one in four people in the UK with a mental health problem each year, around four million will also struggle with money issues. People with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in problem debt than the rest of the population.

It works both ways: financial problems can cause mental distress, but mental health issues can in turn lead to poor financial health. For example, the mania associated with bipolar disorder can lead to overspending and debt. The trigger for this episode may be financial difficulties, or perhaps the loss of housing or employment. And we know too that money issues on their own can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, which in turn can make it even harder to get a handle on money problems. Tanya was in exactly this position and told us: “I’d say my mental illness was directly brought on by my financial difficulties… I dreaded opening post and worried how I would afford to get through each month.” Research suggests the greater the debt, the greater the anxiety.

The bottom line is that mental ill health and financial difficulties too often reinforce one another in devastating ways. But money problems and mental ill-health need not go hand in hand. The right intervention at the right time can help to prevent problems spiralling out of control.

Breaking the link

That’s why Mental Health UK, with the support of Lloyds Banking Group, are launching the Mental Health and Money Advice Service.  This will be the first national service to offer expert advice on managing financial and mental ill health. Part of the problem now is that there is no UK-wide service that reflects how interlinked these issues are – debt and money management services don’t have the mental health expertise to refer people with mental health issues to appropriate services, and health agencies don’t have the expertise to assist people with money problems. The Mental Health and Money Advice Service is being set up to help people who fall between the cracks.

The service will provide a one to one referral helpline that can answer questions and provide advice for those already receiving support for mental health problems. It will also provide a website full of information, tools and templates for those wanting to find out more.

The service will test whether this integrated approach works and we’ll be encouraging elected representatives and financial, health and housing practitioners to raise awareness of the new service.

The bigger picture

Ultimately though, we want to create the conditions where the need for such a service simply doesn’t exist. Prevention is always better than cure, and that’s where government, financial institutions and health agencies have a big role to play.

The systems and structures of how we support people need to change. People with long term mental health issues are often capable of making sound financial decisions when they’re well. But they need greater support to protect them when they’re unwell. That might include enabling them to nominate people to act on their behalf when things do go awry, or putting in place extra ‘hurdles’ and checks, to prevent unwise behaviour when they’re ill.

Tougher regulation and better education is needed across financial services, utility firms and retail to protect vulnerable consumers when they are unwell and help them put self-protection systems in place. This includes cracking down on irresponsible high-cost credit providers.

Increased awareness about mental health is certainly a cause for optimism. But given the deep and complex link between financial and mental ill-health, more certainly needs to be done. Our Mental Health and Money Advice Service is an attempt to address the problem – we hope that government and other agencies can learn from this approach and pursue the systematic change required. Only then, can we truly break the devastating link between mental and financial ill-health.

The Mental Health & Money Advice Service will be launching its website on 9 October, ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October. The website will help people to understand, manage and improve their financial and mental health.

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