Money and mental health: digital support, proactive interventions and data concerns

 Jamie Clements photo
Jamie Clements
5min read

11:FS Account Executive and MQ Mental Health Ambassador Jamie Clements asks how banks can break the cycle of debt that afflicts those in poor mental health.

The level of discussion around the topic of mental health has been growing year on year and significant progress has been made to reduce stigma and support those in need. However, is there more financial services institutions and essential services firms can do to break the cycle of debt that entraps those in poor mental health? What role can technology and data play in delivering this?

Earlier this year, Sarah Kocianski wrote a fantastic piece detailing the link between money and mental health. To quote:

"Poor mental health can lead to poor financial health and vice versa, trapping people in a never-ending spiral where one problem continually exacerbates another. To drive that home, across England more than 1.5 million people are experiencing both problem debt and mental health problems, according to Money and Mental Health."

More than half of people with mental health problems (54%) have serious difficulties using the phone to carry out essential admin

Finding even the smallest task insurmountable is a common symptom of many mental health issues. Whether it be getting out of bed, going to work or picking up the phone to speak to your bank, tasks some consider to be mundane can be virtually impossible for others.

To put this in perspective, according to Money and Mental Health:

  • “More than half of people with mental health problems (54%) have serious difficulties using the phone to carry out essential admin”.
  • “More than one in five (22%) people with a recent mental health problem have had a panic attack while dealing with essential services”.

These issues are further exacerbated when people find themselves in further debt, unable to access the right services for them and, in some cases, left with services they neither want nor need. Standards have long been in place around accessibility for physical illnesses, and as the conversation has increased around the topic of mental health, we are starting to see essential services companies address mental health accessibility in the same way.

The Mental Health Accessible Standards

This is where Money and Mental Health’s amazing work comes into its own. They’ve introduced the Mental Health Accessible Standards to assess how firms help people struggling with their mental health and the accompanying accessibility of their services.

The standards are split into three key areas:

  • “How well [businesses] train their staff to support customers with mental health problems”
  • “Whether they offer a wide range of communication channels, so that people can get in touch whichever way suits them best”
  • “What tools and support they offer to help people stay on top of things when they’re unwell”

Thanks to a pilot with Lloyds Bank, Money and Mental Health will be able to gain valuable insights into how to improve services for those struggling with their mental health.

The role of technology

So where does technology feature in all of this? Now that incumbents and challengers are very much focussed on digital, how can these standards be incorporated into the digital banking experience?

A smooth digital process can remove the need for phone calls and branch visits, which helps customers in some cases. But when we look at debt management, addictive behaviours, compulsive spending and more, how can banks support their customers better?

In the wake of research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, and following the lead of digital-first favourites Starling and Monzo, Barclays became the first incumbent to implement a gambling block that could be activated by customers in-app and online. The block adds friction to certain transaction types to help customers manage their money.

However, this feature places the ball very much in the customers’ court, leaving them the choice to put such blocks in place. As a result, those who are struggling may not be able to use it for its intended purpose.

So what can be done proactively by these firms to identify, support and, if required or desired, intervene when necessary? And do customers even want this?

Data and mental health support

This makes up part of the latest report by Money & Mental Health, entitled “Data Protecting: using financial data to support customers”. It looks to answer the above questions and asks whether banks and building societies should use the huge amount of data they have to support customers, improving their financial and mental health in the process.

The statistics from this research show that on the whole, customers do want some measure of assistance:

  • “50% of adults think their bank or building society should use their financial data to identify problems and offer support, with just one in ten (12%) disagreeing”
  • 68% of adults “think it would be useful for financial services firms to help spot financial problems as they develop”
  • 66% of adults think it would be useful for financial services firms to “offer proactive support when things go wrong”
  • 61% of adults think it would be useful for financial services firms to “help with day-to-day financial management”

But when it comes to firms using their data, customers still have privacy, practical and emotional concerns. This is to be expected – trust in the sector is still being rebuilt and firms have regulatory (thanks to the FCA and the ICO) and ethical duties to deliver support in the right way.

That being said, according to this latest report, “51% of people feel that the benefits of their bank looking through their data to spot problems outweigh the risks, while only 11% disagree”. So what do we mean by the “right way” to deliver this type of support?

How to move forward

The Money and Mental Health team make some great practical suggestions on where to start.

  1. Transparency: not only should firms be open about why and how they’re using their customers’ data, they must also be honest about the fact that the analysis has limitations and may not always be 100% accurate.
  2. Personalisation: when we talk about mental health and financial problems, no two issues are identical. Service providers need to be sympathetic to this. The end user should be able to personalise each intervention and communication channel to ensure they’re supported in a way that works for them.
  3. Human-led: while interventions and support mechanisms will be routed in data and technology, customers must be able to easily reach a person when they need to feel fully supported.
  4. Use open banking: open banking and account aggregation has enabled brilliant customer-led innovation in financial products and services, as outlined here by Jo Kumire. Firms should consider the benefits of this in supporting customers and providing more accurate data analysis.

Training is another area that demands attention. In financial services companies, as in most workplaces, employees are regularly sent on first aid courses focussed on physical health. However, mental health first aid has only recently become an area of focus. This training will be vital to help staff assist customers effectively.

The conversation about mental health is constantly on the rise, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute continues to lead the way with its inspiring work. When it comes to finance, their research has already clarified what needs to be addressed. Perhaps more importantly, it has provided practical advice on how changes can be made for the betterment of society.

With the right regulatory support and a shift in focus from relevant firms, it seems as though change is on the way. The best is yet to come.