Beyond good practice guides: Improving support with essential services for people with mental health problems

For this research 766 KB , we interviewed Citizens Advice advisers about their experiences supporting clients with mental health problems with their essential services. We then tested our findings with a national survey, comparing the experiences of those with mental health problems to those without.

This sits alongside  Essential service markets and people with mental health problems 922 KB , a piece of ethnographic research examining the lived experience of people with mental health problems, and how they interact with essential service providers. This was conducted by Britainthinks on behalf of Citizens Advice.

Over the past few years, regulators have increased their focus on vulnerability. But at the same time, we have seen a 15% increase in consumer, utilities and telecoms issues for clients with mental health problems - compared to no change among our clients overall. This suggests that current protections for vulnerable consumers are leaving people with mental health problems behind.

Previous research has shown that people with mental health problems are likely to benefit from both financial and non-financial support.

This research finds:

  • Most clients are unaware they could get support with their essential services. Despite providers’ efforts, the vast majority of our advisers say that customer awareness of support is non-existent. Providers often tell people about support via letters or bills. But many clients with mental health problems are unable to open, read or understand these. And even the best promotional campaigns require people to take action - but for some clients, simply making a phone call to their provider is a challenge.

  • Even when people know support exists, they struggle to access it without help. There is huge variation in how well customer service staff respond to requests for support, with rigid evidence requirements and complex processes making things even harder. Our research found telecoms staff particularly inflexible and unsympathetic to the impact of clients’ mental health problems.

  • The support on offer is patchy, inconsistent and unreliable. Support systems in the water sector are generally well designed and delivered. But overall,energy, telecoms and financial service providers do not provide effective support for people with mental health problems. This is particularly true in the telecoms sector, where the lack of consumer support or advocacy is causing high levels of detriment.

This means that in practice, many clients with mental health problems do not get the support they need. As a result, they are struggling to manage their essential services, which can cause stress, financial hardship and worsening health.

In their Consumer Green Paper, the government and regulators pledged to agree principles for improving services for consumers with mental health problems. In order to achieve this, the Government and UK Regulators Network should start by considering the following areas:

Recommendations

  1. Through the UK Regulators Network and the proposed Consumer Forum, regulators should agree and introduce minimum standards of support for vulnerable consumers across all essential services

  2. Providers should develop systematic, market-wide mechanisms for recording information about vulnerable customers’ needs.

  3. Providers should offer multiple ways for customers to get in touch in order to request extra support.

  4. Evidence requirements for accessing support should be simple, consistent, and as low as is feasible.