This week, let's raise more than just awareness

11 May 2017

By Helen Undy, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Over the last few years mental health has had a meteoric rise, not just in the number of headlines about celebrities and royals sharing their experiences, but also in the slightly less glamorous world of policy-making.

It would have been hard to believe a few years ago, but mental health policy is now a vote-winner - and with a new election on the horizon, that creates an opportunity to push for real change.

Because, while policies focusing on improving access to mental health treatments have rightly been at the top of the agenda, there’s been something noticeably missing - prevention. We wouldn’t talk about treatment for cancer without tackling its causes and the same should be true for mental health. Our ambitions should be just as high. 

At the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute our research has thrown stark light on the impact that financial difficulties can have on our mental health. This won’t come as a surprise to many - facing a sudden drop in income through redundancy or sickness absence is stressful, scary and intimidating. Dealing with phone calls or visits from bailiffs can be terrifying, causing real and immediate distress. And trying to make ends meet when you just aren’t earning enough to pay the bills can take all the time and energy you have to give.

But what may come as a surprise is the sheer scale of the impact. People in problem debt are twice as likely to have serious depression. People who have experienced a financial crisis in the last six months are nearly eight times as likely to think about suicide. Supporting people to avoid, or to deal with, financial difficulty could have a significant impact on the prevalence of mental health conditions in Britain, as well as helping those who are living with them to recover, and to live with dignity.

That’s why we’ve just published our own manifesto, calling on the next government to grasp the nettle and take action. With mental health services already bursting at the seams and the number of people in problem debt set to rise - we can't afford to wait.

Preventative steps

We want to see the next government take preventative steps including:

  • guaranteeing 'breathing space' for people with serious debt problems, where creditors can't enforce payment or charge interest while people get back on their feet, to stop both the debts and the associated stress and anxiety spiralling out of control
  • cracking down on high-cost credit - like logbook loans, unauthorised overdrafts and catalogue credit that can be hard to understand, difficult to resist, and can cause significant financial harm
  • ending the six-week wait for universal credit, which leaves many struggling to manage to pay the bills and getting into both problem debt and mental health difficulties before their first benefit payment arrives.

We’d also like to see money and benefits advice made available through the NHS alongside mental health treatment for all those who are struggling with their finances, so that we can tackle the 'recovery gap' between those with problem debts and those without.

All of the major political parties have stated their commitment to mental health, and I’m sure they will all put out press releases for mental health awareness week reinforcing the importance of tackling stigma and starting conversations.

That’s a good start, but what would really make a difference to the people anxiously working out if they can afford to turn the heating on, to those facing the financial cliff-edge of redundancy or avoiding opening the post, is some practical action. This week, let’s raise more than awareness: let’s raise our expectations. I want our next government to be as ambitious about preventing mental health problems as we are.