Companies providing essential services must do more to support people with mental illnesses, Citizens Advice has said.
Research by the charity showed that people with mental health problems are paying a ‘mental health premium’ of between £1,100 and £1,550 on utilities, credit cards and overdrafts because of how challenging navigating the services can be.
Companies and regulators are failing people with conditions like anxiety and depression, Citizens Advice said, adding that 90,000 of the people the charity helped in the last year had mental health problems.
Len, a single father of three who went to Citizens Advice for help, suffers from complex post traumatic stress disorder.
This makes it difficult for him to communicate with companies, he said, as he regularly experiences exhaustion and depression.
“I need continuity and for things to be familiar to me but every time I get in touch, I have to speak to a different person,” he said. “This also means I don’t want to change any of my contracts so stick with the same ones.
“I’ve had my broadband disconnected due to unpaid bills. I then had no way to fix the problem as my line of communication had been taken away. I felt isolated and this meant my mental health condition got worse and I got further behind on my payments.
“I don’t want to become or stay dependent and I am someone who is always finding ways to help myself but I’m struggling at the moment and need more support.”
The charity is calling for independent regulators such as Ofgem and Ofcom to agree on new ways to make services accessible for people with mental health problems.
Some of their recommendations include:
If a customer with mental health problems is struggling to pay their bill, providers should be obliged to review their tariff and check it is the best one for their needs
Not having services disconnected due to debt or late payment – instead providers should work with customers to set up affordable payment plans
Priority repairs if their service is disrupted
Being able to communicate in a way that works best for them without being charged extra
Julia D’Allen, the coordinator for a mental health project at Citizens Advice South Somerset, said: “Almost all of the people we help with mental health problems have financial issues as a result. They just don’t have the mental wellbeing to shop around for the best deals.
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“I’ve seen so many people whose broadband and phone packages have gone up after a year, they can’t afford it and they’re sinking into debt or having their phones cut off. For people with anxiety and depression, losing their phone and contact with other people is like losing a lifeline.
“These companies do have good deals for vulnerable people but they’re not easy to access.”
The charity also wants regulators to commit to enforcing new standards, which would mean monitoring companies’ treatment of vulnerable customers and taking action where providers fall short.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: “If you have a mental health condition, keeping on top of everyday tasks such as paying a bill, or solving a problem with a provider, can be especially challenging. Too many are being left to fend for themselves.
“Last year the government tasked regulators with making minimum standards for people with poor mental health a priority. Little has been done. This is a widespread problem and regulators need to step up and take action to ensure people are not being ripped off.”