PM takes action to deal with the “hidden injustice of mental illness”

By Alison Blackwood, Senior Policy & Campaigns Advocate

Yesterday brought some good news for the new year: the Prime Minister Theresa May has announced a review of the “health debt form”, for which some patients are charged as much as £300 by their GP. This is part of her announcement to deal with the “hidden injustice of mental illness”.

Stop the Charge campaign

The PM’s announcement is a great result for the Money & Mental Health Policy Institute. Their ‘Stop the Charge’ campaign was created to protect people with mental health problems from being charged for medical evidence they need to get their debts reduced or put on hold. We’re strong supporters of the Institute’s work on this, as every single person asking for this form to be filled out will have severe debt problems. The Institute’s research has showed that some people have gone without fresh food, or turned off the heating, to pay the health debt form charge.

Why do some people need evidence of their mental illness?

Getting into debt can be incredibly distressful for many people, but even more so for people with mental health problems. Evidence from GPs can help creditors understand the need to reduce the financial stress that can be holding back their patient’s recovery.

Once a creditor has been presented with evidence of a mental health problem, it could encourage them to show forbearance, or ‘write off debts’, where appropriate. Evidence from a GP could also persuade creditors and debt collectors to put a halt to debt collection and enforcement activity. The Institute produced compelling evidence that resolving a person with depression’s debts can increase their chances of recovery by 400%.

“I was having panic attacks and not sleeping and, you know, all the classic things that you see on the adverts for people with debt worries and things like that.”
StepChange Debt Charity client

The Prime Minister’s announcement to review the charge will increase people’s chances, not only of recovering from their mental health problems, but also of resolving their financial difficulties.

A step further….

As positive a result as yesterday’s announcement is, we want to see a better guarantee of protection extended even more widely. We know the distress problem debt creates is linked to poor mental health: 60% of our clients show severe signs of depression and/or anxiety, on nationally recognised scales, and are recommended to seek medical help. Our research shows that freezing further interest, charges and enforcement action helps people in problem debt stabilise their financial situation.

Breathing Space

The mental health evidence form is designed to protect vulnerable people. We want to see that protection extended into a ‘Breathing Space’ scheme. This would give all people struggling with problem debt statutory protection from the harmful interest, penalty charges and enforcement actions experienced when falling into difficulty debt crisis. Such charges can add thousands of pounds to existing debts and push individuals into even worse financial hardship. The added stress and anxiety can badly affect their mental health.

Under current law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, those struggling with debt only qualify for such protection if they take the serious step of becoming insolvent.

“By giving people time and space to repay their debts in an affordable and sustainable way, we can help people avoid some of the worst consequences that debt imposes and reduce the costs to wider society.”
Mike O’Connor, Chief Executive, StepChange Debt Charity

We need support for our Breathing Space campaign to help reduce these links between severe debt problems and poor mental health. Mrs May’s vision of a “shared society” cannot come about until people struggling with problem debt get the support they need.