“I would get letters from the banks which made me feel so sick I’d hide them in the wardrobe and ignore them,” says Beth Rees, who lives with borderline personality disorder. “I couldn’t sleep for days at a time because I was worrying about what I was going to do.”
Rees, from Cardiff, is one of many people juggling mental illness and debt. To escape from reality, the 30-year-old communications officer used to splurge excessively on her credit card. “I even bought a car once when I wasn’t in my right mind,” she tells HuffPost UK.
People with mental health problems are three times as likely to be in financial difficulty, according to the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. The charity estimates that 23,000 people in England were struggling with problem debt last year while in hospital for their mental health. Some of these will have received calls and emails from debt collectors, which only exacerbates stress during an already difficult time.
To tackle the issue, the government has been urged to extend a ‘breathing space’ scheme to people with poor mental health. This stops debts from increasing by freezing interest and charges and halting enforcement action. The only catch is that to access it, you need to be accessing psychiatric inpatient care or the care of a Crisis Resolution Team.
Rees wasn’t hospitalised, but she was attending counselling and in regular contact with her local mental health support team. At one point she racked up so much debt she was having panic attacks. The 30-year-old says people who receive a mental health diagnosis from a GP could also benefit from the scheme.
The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute recognises this too. Director Simon Crine tells HuffPost UK: “Giving people in crisis a breathing space from spiralling debts won’t fix all of this, but it will go a long way to help those people in the most acute need. Our research shows that debts can be both a cause and consequence of mental health crisis, so it’s important that help is available early.
“We’re also calling for better support through the benefits system to ensure people have enough money to live on, help from banks with financial management, and tools to help people control their spending in periods of poor mental health.”
To this day Rees is still paying off what she owes, but she feels far more in control of the situation thanks to her partner who helped her budget. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have such a support system in place. Lee Brookes, 41, from Manchester, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007 and managed to rack up £32,000 in debt after experiencing cycles of mania (feeling high and overactive) and depression.
“During the manic stages I would go through episodes of spending and spend money that I didn’t have or that I’d borrowed,” he tells HuffPost UK. “After I spent the money I would then spiral into depression. It got to a point where I had bailiffs chasing me. It became an unmanageable situation and I went through periods where it got so dark I considered taking my own life.”
He says the breathing space scheme, which he would have been eligible for, would have been a “fantastic help”. That said, he also recognises that early intervention would have been better. “If I had had the signposting I got when I filed for bankruptcy earlier on, I don’t think I would have struggled for as long as I did.
“If you’re constantly thinking about the fact you’re getting into more debt, how are you supposed to recover?”
Both Brookes and Rees agree that if the government, banks and charities can work together to make it easier for people to talk about mental health and money, and make it easier to access support, “it could help millions of people”. The banks could have a dedicated helpline offering money and debt advice, Rees suggests, they could extend the amount of time someone has to pay their debt back or help them to set up a plan to pay the money back. Brookes, who has since managed to pay off his debt, goes one step further: “If the banks were allowed to have some kind of contact with primary care they could be notified that a person isn’t at a point where they can pay it back and could put a hold on charges or interest.”
There are some banks who are starting to think more along these lines. Lloyds bank has teamed up with Mental Health UK to create a service which offers support for people experiencing both mental health and financial difficulties. Meanwhile Santander has a financial support team that is trained to talk to customers if mental health is having an impact on their ability to manage money.
Sarah Murphy from the Mental Health and Money Advice Service, Mental Health UK, says there is guidance on how banks should act in this situation, but it isn’t legally binding. That said, many banks, lenders and debt collection agencies have agreed to follow them, she adds.
As part of this guidances, banks are advised to look for signs of capacity problems (so asking themselves ‘is this person well enough to make this decision?’), making sure people with mental illness are treated fairly, only taking court action as a last resort, and considering the option of writing off a debt if the person that owes it is unable to pay because of their illness.
Murphy adds: “Of course diagnosis of a mental health problem doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is not capable of managing their money, so shouldn’t automatically be a ‘red flag’. Banks and lenders should be exploring how a particular condition affects that person as an individual, so having awareness and feeling confident to have those conversations is very important, and training can really help with that.”
For free, practical advice and support for people experiencing issues with mental health and money visit www.mentalhealthandmoneyadvice.org.