Mental health institute calls for overhaul to retail banking

25 January 2017, 15:38   By Samantha Smith

THE Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) has called on banks to make their services more accessible to people with mental health issues, after new research showed that "financial capability" is affected by a wide range of relatively common conditions.

mental health happiness concept
Credit: SewCream/

The research, published by the MMHPI itself, revealed that people's ability to "manage everyday financial tasks like paying bills or budgeting" is reduced by bouts poor mental health.

Because of this, the Institute are urging banks to provide people with mental health conditions with the kind of accessibility help they offer people with physical, visual or hearing impairments.

But in a country where one in four people experience mental health problems in a single year, this is something of an ambitious claim, since it would seem to require that banks make special mental health services available to all of their customers, and not just a select few.

Budgeting support

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As for these services, the MMHPI recommend a number of them in the final section of their report, entitled "Seeing through the fog".

They're collected under three headings, with the first - Budgeting support - calling for the introduction of the following:

  • Jam-jarring - help with budgeting by breaking down spending into basic categories
  • Nudges - smartphone or email alerts that a customer's gone over budget
  • Timely reminders - of due payments
  • Visualisation - to make spending data more digestible
  • Automated comparison - comparison apps to make choosing between services simpler

It's important to note at this point that the reason why the MMHPI is recommending such services is because many mental health conditions - from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder - are associated with difficulties with short-term memory.

Similarly, their report finds that those with bipolar disorder or ADHD have problems when it comes to controlling their spending, while those with personality disorder "find it very difficult to compare options".

Control and communication

It's for such reasons that the Institute make the above recommendations relating to budgeting, yet they also advocate the following measures headlined under "Control options":

  • Double confirmations and cooling-off periods for large transactions, so that customers have the option of cancelling them
  • Ability to self-exclude from making payments and new credit
  • Ability to allow friends and family to have limited shared access to account

As with the above recommendations, these are motivated by the Institute's findings, which reveal that people experiencing depression struggle to plan ahead and understand the full implications of their (financial) actions.

Likewise, those with serious anxiety often shrink away from making telephone calls or opening their mail, which is why the MMHPI are also seeking more help with communication, including:

  • Allowing customers to express a preference for a particular communication channel
  • Training bank staff to recognise frustration arising from difficulty completing tasks
  • Introducing voice recognition and biometrics as a means of authentication

By acting on such recommendations, the Institute argue that banks will become much more sensitive to customers with mental health conditions.

How feasible?

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And given that mental health problems and debt woes are locked in a vicious circle, they'll also be much better placed to reduce the £8.3 billion that debt-related mental and physical health issues cost the UK each year.

Commenting on this potential for their proposals to reform banking, the Director of the MMHPI, Polly Mackenzie, said, "We have assembled all the evidence to prove that mental health problems can severely affect consumers' ability to stay on top of their finances, shop around, or manage a budget. It's time for the financial services industry to adapt its services to help support people when they're unwell".

For too long, it's been assumed that when people with mental health problems get behind on bills, or struggle to stick to their budget, it's because they're lazy or incompetent. Our research proves beyond doubt that's just not true.
Polly Mackenzie, MMHPI

However, as well-meaning as the Institute's demand is here, and as rigorous as their research is, it's seems unlikely that their proposals will be implemented by banks, at least in the form they've presented them.

This is because they relate to far too many people. As they note, one in four people in the UK suffer mental health issues in a single year. As such, requiring financial institutions to adapt to the needs of such people is tantamount to asking these institutions to reform their entire customer service department.

The Institute is, in short, asking for a very substantial reform in how the banks treat their customers as a whole, as indicated when Polly Mackenzie says sensitivity to mental health needs "should be core business".

And in the end, it's because they're asking for a wholesale reform of banking customer service that the banks will resist their sensible guidelines, citing "cost" as the reason for why they can't introduce more than few tokenistic measures.

And this is a shame, because the UK does have a serious problem with mental health, and it's about time the banks fully recognised the role they have in this problem, and the role they could have in alleviating it.

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