By Eilidh McIvor, Social policy co-ordinator, Citizens Advice Scotland
This article was first published in the Sunday Herald on 29 July 2018.
If you have ever contacted your energy supplier, your credit provider or your mobile phone company over a bill or technical problem, you will know that the processes can be long, exhausting and difficult. They can leave anyone feeling anxious and unsure how to proceed.
Tackling these issues while you are experiencing mental health problems, however, can be especially challenging. Citizens Advice research has found that this can cause serious issues for people when engaging with providers of energy, water, telecoms and financial services. These range from increased difficulty in handling day-to-day interactions and keeping on top of accounts, through to the difficulty, and sometimes impossibility, of resolving crises when they arise.
The effects of either delayed action or total inaction can be especially serious in these cases. Feelings of anxiety, fear, guilt and shame can make mental health issues worse. And when problems are left unresolved, consumers can become disconnected from services and/or experience debt, loss of savings or relationship problems - all of which can again further worsen mental health conditions.
Unfortunately, the support that is currently offered to vulnerable consumers across essential service markets is unreliable and inconsistent. Awareness of support tends to be lowest among those who need it most, and the support itself can be difficult to access.
At Citizens Advice Scotland, we have been researching the experiences and perspectives of vulnerable consumers in accessing these types of support. We have found increasing commitment among service providers and regulators, but it is still patchy and piecemeal. We think more could be done to improve and integrate provision of support, and to maximise awareness and uptake. We’ll be reporting on this in the autumn.
The UK Government’s Consumer Green Paper, which sets out the need for greater simplicity, transparency and fairness for those who purchase and use goods and services, includes a commitment to considering the case for minimum standards of support for consumers with mental health problems, and to identifying principles for improving services for them. This is certainly promising. Clear, robust minimum standards would help service providers to deliver the inclusive, reliable and consistent support that we all may need from time to time.
However, intent must translate into policy and practice. Energy, water, telecoms and financial services, among others, are essential to everyone’s lives and wellbeing. Service providers must therefore be both committed and able to meet the needs of all consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, and especially during times when they are having problems.
Here’s the bottom line. People need access to services which meet their needs, and they are entitled to appropriate support where necessary to enable them to obtain and use those services. With one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem every year, that means all service providers need to commit to making their services fully accessible to all consumers, and that includes those who might need extra support, who at the moment are all too often missing out.