New research published by the University of Bristol, in partnership with the Money Advice Trust and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has outlines the experiences of nearly 1,600 UK debt advisers when supporting people in vulnerable situations.

The report, Vulnerability: the experience of debt advisers – which was grant funded by the Money Advice Service – reveals the scale and nature of the vulnerability among clients that advisers encounter on a regular basis, and highlights that being ‘vulnerable’ is about more than being in financial difficulty. The research shines a spotlight on the day-to-day realities for debt advisers in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

The report contains practical guidance and tools to help advisers with challenges such as recognising vulnerability, approaching a conversation about vulnerability and recording information in an appropriate manner.

Findings are based on a UK-wide survey of 1,573 debt advisers from nearly 400 organisations and an online survey of nearly 400 people with mental health problems and their experiences as they sought and navigated the debt advice process.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of advisers encountered at least one client in the past 12 months who disclosed suicidal thoughts or feelings. More than half (56%) believed they had spoken to someone at serious risk of taking their own life.

Of the 87 clients that a typical adviser dealt with in a full-time working month, an average of 35 disclosed they lived with a mental health problem, while around seven said they had an addiction to gambling, alcohol or other substances.

The report also uses survey data from nearly 400 people with lived experience of mental health problems, and their experiences of seeking and receiving debt advice. Out of the more than 260 people with mental health problems who received debt advice, four out of 10 (44%) had not discussed their mental health condition with the advice organisation they dealt with. Reasons for this included not knowing it would make a difference (65%), concern as to what would happen to their information (28%) and feeling they wouldn’t be treated sensitively (23%).

The range of situations experienced by people in debt represents a real challenge for advisers and their organisations. While most advisers said they felt fairly confident in identifying a client in a potentially vulnerable situation, the research suggests a need for adviser training to turn identification into effective support. More than half (56%), for example, said they had not received training on supporting clients with gambling problems.

Wider factors such as funding, time and a lack of local support services to refer clients to were also identified as challenges to providing people with the best support possible.

Professor Sharon Collard, director of the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol, said “This is the first time we have had sector-wide data on the extent and nature of vulnerable situations faced by debt advice clients, and what this means for debt advisers and their organisations. The research makes a strong case for improving support and training for debt advisers on issues such as gambling and suicide. It also highlights the importance of improving access to wider support services if debt advice clients are to get the holistic help they so often need.”

Joanna Elson OBE, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, said “We know that people in financial difficulty are often facing a range of different challenges. However, this research shows us for the first time the experiences of front line debt advisers in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. The diverse range of vulnerable situations that people are faced with beyond their financial difficulties, shows the challenging job debt advisers face on a daily basis. We know through the Wiseradviser training we offer the positive impact training can have on advisers and the people they help. With demand for debt advice continuing to grow, this report comes at an important time. We look forward to working with partners across the sector to build on the support available and to launching training in the new year in important areas including addictions and suicide prevention.”

Helen Undy, Director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said “Around half of people in problem debt also have mental health problems, but many struggle to disclose this to debt advisers. That’s largely because they fear they won’t be treated sensitively, or that it won’t make any difference to their situation. We’d like to see debt advisers equipped with more training and tools to help them identify when clients are struggling with their mental health, and to work with clients to find a sustainable solution that works.”