Online shopping leaves 3m people with mental health problems facing debt

With Black Friday approaching, the Money Mental Health Policy Institute is calling on retailers to give consumers the power to protect themselves from damaging shopping sprees

“Pushy” marketing tactics from online shops are leaving more than three million people with mental health problems at the risk of racking up lockdown debt, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) has warned.

The charity, founded by money guru Martin Lewis, is urging retailers to give their customers the power to manage their online spending by avoiding delayed payment products, one-click purchases and personalised marketing on websites ahead of Black Friday.

“Online retail can be a lifeline for people living with mental health problems who may struggle to leave the house, especially during the pandemic,” said MMHPI chief executive Helen Undy. “But pushy sites and tempting ‘buy now pay later’ offers can cause people to spend more than they can afford, risking both their financial and mental health.” 

A new Opinium poll, released by MMHPI, found that people with mental health problems are particularly vulnerable to these tactics, leaving them twice as likely than the wider population to spend more than they can afford online or buy goods they don’t need.

The shift towards online shopping during the pandemic has compounded these issues. A quarter of adults with mental health problems told pollsters that they have struggled to control their online spending during lockdown, amounting to three million people.

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And more than half of the 2,000 adults quizzed felt that buy now pay later deals were particularly problematic and make it “too easy” to get into debt.

The answer is to include cooling-off periods after completing purchases and opt out clauses for ‘buy now pay later’ services, according to the MMHPI report, which also urges the Competition and Markets Authority to make online shopping sites comply with consumer protection laws. 

The design of websites must also be considered to prevent them from reeling in people with poor mental health by taking advantage of common symptoms such as impulsivity, reduced concentration and low morale.

West Londoner Helen, 28, told The Big Issue that giving consumers the power to block out personalised marketing and email notifications for products left in online baskets would have gone some way to preventing her from racking up debts.

Spending lots of money really caused me to become suicidal. And I was experiencing a lot of guilt and a lot of anxiety, a lot of negative thoughts

Helen was diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago and struggles with periods of hypomania that can see her lose track of her spending. Her most recent episode led to her spending £15,000 on household furniture, decorations, clothes and cat food before she was able to stop her spree.

Helen said the option to set spending controls on sites would have helped her keep control and protect her from falling into debt with devastating consequences for her mental health.

She said: “It’s things like when you make a decision not to buy something and they’ll email you telling you about what you’ve not bought. I find that can be really destructive, negative, because it makes you go through that thought process all over again.

“It is really tough to discipline yourself because it makes you feel very comfortable, makes you feel that spending a lot is okay. 

“Spending lots of money really caused me to become suicidal. And I was experiencing a lot of guilt and a lot of anxiety, a lot of negative thoughts. And my whole sort of self belief went out the window, I just thought I can’t trust myself. I can’t be relied upon for anything.”

Helen Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Helen Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Helen's problems with controlling her spending had a devastating impact on her mental health. Now she is calling for more protection from online marketing tactics (Money and Mental Health Policy Institute)

Helen has sought treatment and has been able to get on top of her demons with the help of her partner and family.

She insists she will be steering clear of shopping sites ahead of Black Friday on November 27.

But greater protections are required to prevent people with mental health conditions from falling into difficulties, says MMHPI chief executive Helen Undy.

“This is particularly challenging in lockdown, with many of us spending longer online, bombarded by adverts telling us that the latest new thing will make us feel better. At its worst, this can leave people in thousands of pounds of debt, with a single day’s shopping spree causing years of misery.

“With more people facing mental health problems this year, as we approach Black Friday retailers must take action to help customers stay in control.”

A Competition and Markets Authority spokesperson said: “Protecting consumers, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, is a priority for the CMA. In recent years, we have taken action against businesses employing pressure selling tactics in the online hotel booking and secondary ticket sectors.

“The CMA is committed to taking further action as required against companies whose practices towards vulnerable consumers break consumer law. We will also advise government if we think that consumer protection law needs to adapt to new harmful business practices.”

Anyone affected by the issues brought up in this story can contact the National Debtline for debt advice on 0808 808 4000 or Samaritans for support with mental health on 116 123.

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