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Government offers debt respite to mental health patients

Parliament has approved amendments to the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill to ensure people receiving NHS mental health crisis services get a 'breathing space' without having to seek debt advice.

Under previous government proposals currently out for consultation, people in problem debt would be given a fixed period of respite without fees, charges, interest or collections activity as long as they attend a debt advice meeting. Now those with serious mental health issues will be eligible for this debt 'breathing space' even if they are unable or unwilling to attend the meeting.

The change in legislation comes after a high-profile lobbying campaign led by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), a charity founded by the personal finance expert and broadcaster Martin Lewis. The campaign was supported by 23 organisations, including Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, StepChange and Carers UK. It was also endorsed by over 80 MPs from both sides of the House, including Conservative Johnny Mercer, Labour's Luciana Berger and Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, a former Care Minister. 10,000 letters of support were delivered to 11 Downing Street in April.

"This move could genuinely save lives," said Martin Lewis. "It’s a victory for common sense – and we’re delighted the government has come on board. People in hospital with severe anxiety, depression and other difficult conditions are already struggling enough without heavy-handed creditors pushing them."

"This scheme will provide essential and sometimes life-saving support to tens of thousands of people in mental health crises," commented Luciana Berger MP. "There is so much more to do to ensure that the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but this is certainly an extremely welcome step in the right direction.”

The MMHPI estimates that around 23,000 people who are hospitalised because of mental health issues could be in financial difficulties and being pursued by creditors. But there could be thousands more in the community who are also experiencing debt and mental health crises. Creative approaches to mental health problems like this can relieve pressure on mental health nurses, overstretched NHS psychiatrists and those in Allied Health.

Debt can cause or be caused by mental health issues. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in two adults with debts has a mental health problem and one in four people with a mental health problem is also in debt.

The new legislation currently proposes a six-week debt respite period, although there have been calls for this to be extended. The Bill also places a duty on local authorities to provide access to related advice, guidance and support to help with debt management.

Mind's website has information and support about money and mental health. There's also a list of contacts for further information, advice and support, which may be useful for health professionals such as mental health nurses to pass on to patients.
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