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‘They blamed me’: Banks aren’t doing enough to service those suffering from mental health issues

  • Mental health related services remain largely under-represented in fintech and banking spaces.
  • Empathy training for customer service experiences and accessible apps can help support people with mental health problems manage their money.

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‘They blamed me’: Banks aren’t doing enough to service those suffering from mental health issues

When Kevin Hines started as a freshman at San Jose State University, he started experiencing overwhelming separation anxiety from his family. Over time, the anxiety began to merge into a recurrence of his bipolar disorder which had been diagnosed earlier. His father, who was an economist and banker, had set up a trust fund for all of Hines’ college expenses. One day Hines found himself at a mall surrounded by a group of acquaintances having spent his entire trust fund on them.

“I dropped all of the funds in one sitting, in one day, in about an hour and a half period. Just gone. An hour and a half. I spent all this money on these people that I didn't even know,” said Hines. 

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, “excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences'' are commonplace during a manic episode. Examples of this can manifest in unrestrained and erratic spending or engagement in impulsive business investments.

“People who have bipolar disorder, when they become manic, they tend to go on spending sprees, whether they're well to do or not. They tend to lose all their money. It's actually very common, much more common than you would even possibly imagine,” said Hines.  

Hines who is a suicide prevention speaker and a survivor of a suicide attempt by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge is part of the most exclusive club of survivors in the world.

“Out of the 39 Golden Gate Bridge survivors in the world, only five of us get to walk, stand and run,” said Hines. “No matter the pain I'm in on a regular basis mentally, I appreciate and value every moment I get to walk this green earth.”

Hines has encountered several financial challenges due to excessive spending during the onset of mania. He has often been on the receiving end of poor, even hostile, customer service from banks when it comes to explaining his spending patterns during an episode. 

When he was first diagnosed as a teenager fresh out of high school, this proved to be especially difficult. “The banks were no help. They were very aggressive. They laid a lot of blame on me. I tried to explain to them my situation and there was absolutely no empathy. No empathy whatsoever,” said Hines. “The only reason I got lucky enough to keep my accounts was because my father used to be the president of the Northern California chapter of that bank. He stepped in and said, hey, look, my son has this issue. I will take over from here. I will be handling these funds.”

Hines’ experience is not an isolated one, according to mental health activist and writer Gabe Howard who also has bipolar disorder, “Banks don't care why you are overdrawn. Once I overdrew my account by $50 and by the time all the fees stacked up, I owed almost $300 and they were unwilling to waive any fees. If it wasn't for my family, that bill could have been much higher. I did not tell them I had bipolar, because I didn't know, but I can't imagine they would care,” he said.

“The reality is banks make lots of money off of simple financial errors. People with bipolar symptoms are much more likely to make small financial errors that really add up.” 

Today, there are a limited number of mental health initiatives in place at financial institutions for consumers with mental health conditions. In the UK, there have been some improvements in this space, as banks gain increasing awareness on the relationship between mental health and finance. The UK’s financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, has developed guidance on how firms should ensure the fair treatment of vulnerable customers.

Barclays and Lloyds Bank have informational resources, accessibility services and tools for differently abled consumers presenting with mental illness. In 2019, HSBC UK unveiled its Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard scheme for customers with dementia, autism, sensory impairments and mental health conditions to receive additional support during customer service. Digital bank Monzo has innovated tools such as accessible interfaces, double check alerts and support system integrated products for users experiencing mental illness. 

“There’s still a long way to go, and we still hear stories of how financial institutions either missed opportunities to support customers struggling with their mental health, or actively made things worse for them,” said Conor D’Arcy, head of research and policy at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute.

Individuals across a spectrum of mental health conditions are three times more likely to fall into debt. Mental health problems can create shorter attention spans, memory loss, impulsivity, motivation loss and cognitive impairments which can greatly hinder personal money management.

“Bipolar disorder really blocks the ability to plan ahead, period. Much of good financial management is about planning for the days, weeks, months and even years ahead. That is not a skill set someone who is suffering from bipolar disorder has when untreated,” said Howard. 

For mental health blogger Christopher Falvey, his OCD contributes to his anxiety around his personal finances. Anxiety during customer service experiences with financial service providers or engagement with inaccessible financial products can be an added stressor for individuals experiencing mental health problems. “I need to see all of my balances, basically, all the time, at the click of a button, very instantly, because I tend to obsess and worry. I have a way of thinking that's a lot of doom and gloom. One of the things I need to do is see all my balances at all times. And that's very difficult.”

Three quarters of individuals with mental health problems face serious challenges when it comes to engaging with at least one communication channel like making a phone call or checking mail. Giving customers more ways to get in contact, from text to webchat, can greatly support their ability to manage their money, according to D’Arcy.

Expensive mental health-related treatment can create further financial strains for individuals with mental health problems. “For many folks who do not have health insurance, the cost of mental health services are very prohibitive,” said Kelly Davis, associate vice president of peer and youth advocacy at Mental Health America. “For example, if you're hospitalized, there can be a lot of financial damage for folks who have to pay out of pocket for resources.” 

Low level household income is correlated with lifetime mental health disorders. Receiving disability benefits can also bring its own set of challenges for people with mental health disorders. “For folks who have psychiatric disabilities, especially if they're receiving disability benefits from the government, the amount of money that they get is horrifyingly low. So it can be really challenging to live on those benefits.,” said Davis. 

The difficult tradeoff between receiving disability benefits and working full time can keep people deeply entrenched in poverty. “Having to still manage the kind of risk of coming off of benefits and working full time can keep people who might otherwise want to work still in poverty, because of the benefits that they're receiving from the government. They'd rather not risk losing them when they go back to work, even if they would prefer to,” said Davis.

Incumbent and challenger banks can take several measures to provide supportive tools and services to people with mental health disorders. Financial management tools, improved customer service training, reminders when payments are due and notifications when spending behavior changes to customers and caregivers are some of the solutions that banks can offer  consumers. 

“It’s worth remembering how widespread mental health problems are, with an estimated one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem in a given year. That means that firms have to think of this as an issue affecting lots of their customers, rather than a niche problem,” said D’Arcy. 

According to a report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, many technologies are already in existence which can help people with mental health conditions manage their finances, however few are currently available across the market to those who need them most. 

“Banks are very powerful and have lots of resources. They can tell me, based on purchasing patterns, if someone potentially stole my credit card -- and alert me immediately. But they can't figure out the pattern for hyper spending or manic spending? That can't provide safeguards that prevent people from being overdrawn? I am not a banker, so I can't concretely tell you the solution -- but I feel very confident one could be found and implemented,” said Howard.

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