Citizens Advice research reveals limited, inconsistent and patchy support for people with mental health problems. Energy and telecoms were rated the worst sectors for customer service and additional support, while water companies were seen most favourably.
The number of people with mental health problems seeking advice from Citizens Advice on utilities and communications issues has soared, at double the pace of people overall.
Citizens Advice found:
People with mental health problems are 4 times more likely to have gone without essentials, such as food, to pay their landline, broadband or mobile phone bill
13% of those with mental health problems have had their landline, broadband or mobile service disconnected once or more due to lack of payment
Cases of people being promised extra support with things like meter readings from their energy provider and never receiving it
Citizens Advice is calling for minimum standards to be set for mental health support across all essential service providers. The government recently published its green paper “Modernising consumer markets” in which it called for standards to be introduced.
Citizens Advice says people with mental health problems should be able to expect:
Access to well trained, specialist customer support
Priority repairs of faulty or broken equipment
Not to be prematurely disconnected due to lack of payment
Any arrears or debts will be dealt with in-house, rather than being sold on, taken to court or dealt with by a third party.
Citizens Advice is also calling for companies across different markets to develop ways of safely recording information about vulnerable customers’ needs in order to provide better support.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice said:
"If you’re suffering with a mental health problem, dealing with everyday concerns like your energy bill or broadband signal may be particularly difficult. Companies need to help their customers with mental health problems rather than adding to their struggles. We found that support to manage essential services is either non-existent, hard to find or sub-standard, varying widely between sectors and companies. People with mental health problems deserve the same levels of extra care as any other vulnerable group, like the physically disabled or the elderly. Stronger standards would make sure they have access to sympathetic customer support and don't have their mobile or energy suddenly cut off because of a missed payment."
Extra support that is currently available includes:
Priority Services Register: support from energy suppliers and network operators to people who are of pensionable age, disabled, chronically sick or have a long-term health condition (including mental health problems)
Warm Home Discount: £140 off energy bills for people receiving Pension Credit Guarantee Credit, some people on certain means-tested benefits. People with mental health problems will not be eligible unless they meet the other criteria.
Watersure: Caps water meter bills for people on certain benefits, and are either responsible for children in full-time education, or have a medical condition (including a mental health condition) that requires greater use of water.
Ofwat Special Assistance: additional customer service available for people with mental health problems