New research published today has found that mental health professionals are being forced to deal with patients’ wider problems rather than treating their illness, as more and more of them struggle with issues such as debt and benefits.

A report by the Money and Mental Health Institute reveals mental health professionals – including psychiatrists and mental health nurses – feel they have to tackle these urgent practical issues before they can focus on their patients’ mental health. The practical tasks being done by mental health professionals include:

  • Filling in benefits paperwork
  • Making telephone calls or writing letters to creditors
  • Accompanying service users to advice appointments
  • Giving practical advice about budgeting and managing debts

The findings come as Citizens Advice releases new research showing the number of people turning to the charity for help who report having a mental health problem has increased by 9% in the past year.

The new report also shows that people with mental health problems are more likely to face a web of complex issues, each dealing with an average of five problems ranging from money worries to problems at work.

Debt is a particular problem and Citizens Advice finds that of people with mental health problems who it supports: A third need advice on debts, compared with a fifth of all people it helps.

Almost a third (31%) are finding it difficult to manage financially, compared with fewer than 1 in 9 (12%) of the general UK population.

More than two thirds (67%) have needed advice on multiple debts in the same year, compared to less than half (45%) of people the charity helps who don’t have mental health problems. These issues are especially evident for ‘priority debt’, such as rent or council tax, putting them at greater risk of eviction, or visits from bailiffs, being cut off from energy supplies and even prison.

The charities have joined forces to warn that, in the face of increased consumer borrowing, the introduction of Universal Credit, and ongoing issues around insecure work, it’s more important than ever that people with mental health problems can get the help they need to tackle the complex challenges life can throw at them.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said “Complex issues like managing debts or dealing with employment problems can be so much harder to cope with if you have a mental health problem, but left unaddressed they can undermine treatment and make it harder to recover – creating a vicious cycle that is incredibly difficult to escape from.”

“Practical advice and support can be invaluable to people’s financial and mental wellbeing, but this burden should not fall on mental health professionals who are already overstretched.”

Martin Lewis, Founder and Chair of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute said: “Financial worries can hugely exacerbate mental health conditions and vice versa – the two are often intrinsically linked. Yet we’re all too aware that the NHS has only limited resources. Specialist mental health professionals spending precious clinical time on practical tasks, like filling in benefits forms or calling energy providers, is a waste of those resources. It’s understandable though, often people with nowhere else to turn in a crisis – such as when they’ve not received their benefits, or the bailiffs are on the phone, get in touch with their compassionate mental health professional – who feels duty bound to help.”

“Yet this isn’t joined up. We need commissioners to make sure that specialist financial help and support is speedily available to people using mental health services, allowing highly-trained and let’s be honest, expensive, mental health professionals to focus on the day job of treating patients. And we need to help provide training to ensure that the specialists themselves know where to signpost people so they get help quickly.”

As these complex problems are left unaddressed it often falls to healthcare professionals to try and help. In ‘Whose job is it anyway?’ Money and Mental Health finds that mental health professionals acknowledge that they don’t have the appropriate training and don’t believe they are the best people to help with these issues, but feel they can’t focus on a patient’s mental health until they are resolved.

Citizens Advice and Money and Mental Health are calling on commissioners to provide good quality specialist advice to people using mental health services, to free-up professionals to deliver the mental health support they are trained to provide and ultimately make savings to the taxpayer.