2.8m people with mental health problems fell into council tax debt during pandemic

New research by Money and Mental Health shows that people with mental health problems have been hit particularly hard financially during the pandemic, with two in five suffering a drop in income, and three in ten cutting back on essentials such as food and heating to make ends last year.

It also highlights that common symptoms of mental health problems — like reduced concentration and memory problems — can make it harder for people to understand communications about council tax, and to engage with local authorities.

These challenges have left people with poor mental health more at risk of falling behind on council tax payments during the pandemic. New national polling by Opinium published in the research shows that people with mental health problems were three times more likely to have fallen into council tax arrears than the wider population (18% compared to 6%).

In total, the polling suggests that around 2.8m people with mental health problems fell behind on council tax payments last year.

Money and Mental Health’s research also highlights that people with mental health problems have faced significant barriers to accessing support with council tax bills during the pandemic:

  • A worrying number of people with mental health problems missed out on pandemic-related financial support measures. While 18% of people with a mental health problem fell behind on council tax bills, only 5% used a repayment holiday. Many people said they found the application process too difficult, or were simply unaware that this support was available.
  • Disclosing a mental health problem to their council is extremely difficult and stressful. Survey respondents said that they often have to disclose their mental health problems several times to different council teams, because information sharing between council departments is inconsistent. This compounds the distress that many people are already experiencing.
  • When people do disclose a mental health problem, many do not receive additional help. More than one in three (37%) people who disclosed a mental health problem to their council say they were not offered any additional services or support, such as more time to repay any debts or the opportunity to speak to a specialist.

Money and Mental Health is calling on central government to increase funding to local authorities, to help them provide improved financial support to residents struggling with council tax payments. The charity is also calling on councils to make it easier for people with poor mental health to get support with council tax by:

  • Providing people with more signposting and information about council tax discounts and deductions, and simplifying the process for applying for them.
  • Checking and recording people’s preferred communications channels, to enable the council to get in touch if they are struggling with payments.
  • Ensuring that frontline staff have the tools and training to respond appropriately when someone discloses that their mental health is impacting on their ability to pay council tax bills.

Commenting on the research, Helen Undy, Chief Executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said:

“People with mental health problems have been among the hardest financially hit by the pandemic. Staying on top of council tax payments has become a real struggle for many, butt instead of getting support from their local authority, too many people are being left to fall further behind. That’s leaving vulnerable people exposed to threats of court action and bailiff visits, at a time when they are already facing enormous financial and psychological challenges.

“More funding from central government is needed to help local authorities support residents who are struggling with bills. But councils can also make a big difference by being more proactive in reaching out to those who are struggling, and by making it easier for people to access the discounts and other support that do exist.

“With council tax bills likely to rise further, and many people facing a growing cost of living crisis, it’s vital that councils act now to prevent more residents falling into debt in the coming year.”