Martin Lewis: We can't ignore the impact of money issues on people's mental health – here's what we're trying to do about it

No one set out to make dealing with finances difficult for people with mental health issues, but rarely did they think about how to make it easy. So there weren't any 'bad actors', but lots of terrible systems. After having had my own 'dark days', I always vowed that when I could, I wanted to try and do something about it. So in 2016, I set up the Money & Mental Health Policy Institute charity. I'm still the chair of trustees today and provide the core funding as part of my charity fund.

The work though is done by the brilliant full-time team of 19 staff, but among other things, each year I have the privilege of writing the chair's foreword to the annual report and the full impact statement to talk about what we've managed to do this year. So I thought I'd publish it here.

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Money and Mental Health is a 'do tank', not a 'think tank'. It's all about real world impact

The toxic relationship between money issues and mental health problems has long been a passion of mine to break. Yet the path isn't linear and the incredible results Money and Mental Health has achieved do not take place it in a vacuum. I set up the charity in 2016 – since then, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis have made it feel like we're walking into a headwind. The joy is that progress has still been made; had Money and Mental Health not been around, I think things would be far worse.

We've enabled changes to the benefits system, tackled gambling harms, ensured breathing space respite for people in mental health crisis, and got change to out-of-date rules that forced lenders to send threatening debt letters. There is much more to do, but as we look back on 2023, I'm pleased to reflect on how the charity has continued to build a windbreak for some of those struggling the most. The small team has changed the work of the Government, powerful regulators and global firms. Money and Mental Health's 2023 impact highlights include:

  • Suicide prevention. The Department of Health and Social Care's new suicide prevention strategy for the first time committed the health and benefits systems to tackling the link between financial difficulty and suicide. For example, this means that staff in services like the Department for Work and Pensions will be trained up to offer tailored suicide prevention support to people experiencing financial difficulties. This is largely down to Money and Mental Health's research on the link between financial difficulty and suicide, which is cited prominently in the strategy.

  • New rules and regulations for essential service providers. On the back of our recommendations, water regulator Ofwat has put in place rules for water companies about how they treat vulnerable customers, ensuring it is easier to contact them, and the right support is in place for those in difficult circumstances or who are struggling to pay – with fines for lack of compliance. We made similar calls to Ofgem on energy, many of which are now in place. And Ofcom has laid out new expectations for telecoms firms about how they must contact customers, before any debt collection activity.

  • Fighting to end unfair mental health insurance charges. We called on the Financial Conduct Authority to gather information from insurance firms about pricing of pre-existing medical conditions, focused on mental health, and to monitor outcomes, and are hopeful this will be enacted and be a seed for future change. Plus in response to our campaigning, the Association of British Insurers committed further funding to provide mental health training to 5,000 frontline insurance professionals. The training will boost their understanding of common mental health problems and how they affect people practically, to make sure customers with mental health problems get a service that meets their needs.

  • Helping mental health professionals understand financial problems. We co-developed a toolkit with the Money and Pensions Service (the government body responsible for money and debt advice) for all UK mental health and social care professionals, to enable them to better tackle financial problems for people with severe mental illness and to prevent suicide. We know from our research what an enormous difference it can make when mental health professionals understand money problems and are able to help.

  • Third-party Universal Credit help. The Department for Work and Pensions finally agreed with our call that it must be made much easier for people claiming Universal Credit to get help from others to manage their benefits. In its disability White Paper, it committed to exploring ways to further support people who rely on third parties and carers to manage their Universal Credit, including looking at how people can give permission to others to act on their behalf. We'll be keeping their feet to the fire on this in the coming months.

  • Reducing gambling harms. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport's gambling White Paper included a number of Money and Mental Health recommendations – from putting limits on online gambling stakes to strengthening the gambling card controls that we have worked with financial firms on since 2017. We're closely monitoring the Government's current consultation on these changes.

  • Helping major firms improve how they work with customers who have mental health problems. Through our Mental Health Accessible programme, we've delved behind the scenes at HSBC UK, Lloyds, Ovo and Nationwide to analyse and then recommend how they can make services more accessible for people living with a mental health problem. That includes offering more channels to contact specialist teams, providing frontline staff with training to better support people with mental health problems, and improving tools such as gambling blocks to help people manage their finances.

  • Online safety. A great outcome from the scams campaign coalition we helped convene, with new protections against online scams, especially adverts (often featuring yours truly), becoming law. Plus in our online safety research, we asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate online selling practices such as pressure selling tactics and fake discount offers. It subsequently launched investigation work looking at online choice architecture, including the issues we raised.

I very much enjoyed writing that list, and huge thanks to Money and Mental Health's staff for all the work, passion, expertise and commitment they put in to let us punch way above our weight. This year, I want to say a particular thanks to Conor D'Arcy, who has done a superb job of leading the charity as interim chief executive while Helen Undy has been on maternity leave.

There are many others who've contributed hugely to the charity's success too. When I first launched Money and Mental Health, an initial brief was that working collaboratively with other people and organisations needed to be at its core. This is especially necessary for a charity that sits in the middle of the Venn diagram of two important research areas – money and mental health – with impressive bodies of work, and charities looking into them.

At the heart of all is our Research Community – our group of nearly 5,000 'experts by experience', whose ideas and stories shape what we do. I've said it before, but it bears repeating – I've been bowled over by our members' generosity in sharing their thoughts on what needs to change and using their experiences to help others. We, and society, owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Do come along and join the Research Community if you can.

I want to also thank the partners, collaborators and fellow campaigners across the charity, plus essential services and policy sectors that support our work. All this is meatily supported by my talented fellow trustees, whose wisdom and insight has been critical in guiding the charity through the past year and beyond.

The start of 2024 has brought a few rare glimmers of hope, even if it's only that the speed of degradation due to the cost of living crisis has declined. Yet huge swathes of the country are still struggling with their financial and mental wellbeing, and many more are at risk of falling into this cycle. So in this election year, we will be redoubling our efforts to end the marriage made in hell that money and mental health problems can be, and ensure attention is focused on it.