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Supporting people in debt who live with bipolar disorder

Content warning: this post contains mentions of suicide.‍

Many of the customers that we help at Ophelos are classed as vulnerable, something which the FCA defines this as "someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care".

We have a duty of care over our users, so it is important for us as a company to understand the various ways that different vulnerabilities can affect somebody in order to provide the highest level of support and build a platform that takes everybody into account.

In this post we'll look at how bipolar can affect a person's mental wellbeing and financial health, as well as some of the things we do at Ophelos to care for people with bipolar.

What is bipolar?

1.3 million people in the UK live with bipolar. That’s 1 in 50 people.

Despite being one of the UK's most common conditions, there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions about the disorder. Bipolar is not just mood swings, it does not only affect adults, and it’s not as simple as just feeling good or bad.

People do not quickly alternate between highs and lows - in reality, most people with bipolar are depressed more often than they are on a high (or 'manic'), and mania may be so mild that it goes unrecognised.

Bipolar is a bit like an emotional amplifier - when you’re feeling good you’re the smartest, funniest, quickest person in the room. When you’re feeling low, you take on the suffering of the world.

Bipolar disorder is generally characterised by:

Manic or hypomanic episodes

People experiencing mania may have increased energy, feel rested after only a few hours sleep, have heightened creativity, have increased self-esteem, experience racing thoughts, act impulsively, or feel agitated or aggressive. While mania can be severe and last over a week, hypomania is less severe, with symptoms lasting over four days and usually having no impairment to life activities like work or social relationships.

Depressive episodes

Signs of a depressive episode include having a decreased level of energy, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, difficulty in concentrating on an activity, loss of interest in activities, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. Bipolar increases an individual's risk of suicide by up to 20 times. Bipolar UK estimates that at least 800 people with bipolar take their lives each year. Of the people with bipolar alive today in the UK, 70,000 will take their own life unless action is taken.

Potentially some psychotic symptoms

This can occur during both manic and depressive episodes. Psychosis is when people lose some contact with reality. This might involve seeing or hearing things that other people cannot see or hear (hallucinations) and believing things that are not actually true (delusions).

Manic and depressive episodes can last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Depression may follow shortly after mania (and vice versa), or there may be a gap of weeks or months in between.

How can bipolar affect financial health?

Although it is by all means possible to live a normal life with bipolar, the disorder can interfere with work, school, engagement in social activities, relationships and finances.

There is a growing amount of research on the relationship between bipolar and financial difficulty. Dr Tom Richardson from the University of Southampton conducted a study in Portsmouth, asking 44 people with bipolar about how their finances related to their mental health. His findings revealed seven common themes:

1. Overspending

This includes impulse shopping and excessive generosity. For example, one person in the study was on a high and gave away all their savings to charity. Other examples include gambling away a lot of money or setting up a risky business venture during manic episodes.

2. Anxiety and depression

Having a poor perceived financial wellness was found to increase anxiety and depression. Following a period of overspending people often become depressed by the amount of debt they had racked up.

3. Regret/guilt

People often deeply regretted overspending after an episode of mania.

4. Poor planning/avoidant coping

People with bipolar were found to have a greater tendency to avoid bills and stick their heads in the sand.

5. A vicious cycle

One participant commented “it’s a vicious cycle. I realise I’m spending and putting my family in financial stress and that leads to larger depression. This then leads to comfort spending again.”

6. Poor employment

Some participants had to take pay cuts due to mental health problems. Others impulsively quit their jobs during manic episodes.

7. Comfort spending

Participants bought things to make them feel better when they were down, often pushing them deeper into debt.

What financial help and support is there?

People with bipolar are not doomed to a lifetime of debt. By taking the right steps and finding the right support network, people living with bipolar can find financial wellness - something which can also have a positive effect on their mental wellbeing.

Some of the things that can make a big improvement include:

  • Finding a supportive inner circle (friends, family or professionals who can recognise when someone is struggling and can help to safeguard their finances)
  • Medication and treatments such as CBT, talking therapy or lifestyle advice
  • Limiting themselves to one credit card
  • Restricting online access (such as banning certain websites when they usually overspend or putting gambling restrictions)
  • Finding a budgeting style that works for them, or considering using a professional accountant to help curb spending during an episode of mania

What do we do to help at Ophelos?

Companies selling products and services need to consider how they might be allowing customers to overspend and how they could put safeguards in place for their more vulnerable customers. Many banks, for example, now offer gambling blocks through their apps. Companies dealing with people who are already in debt should take into consideration how their service can better help people who are struggling.

Here at Ophelos we're trying to tackle both these issues, by providing the best support platform for customers to clear their debts while also helping companies to build products and services that care for vulnerable customers from the outset.

There are four main ways that we do this:

1. Having an in-depth understanding of vulnerabilities

Understanding a problem is always the first step to solving it. We make sure that as a team we are conscious of the ways that various vulnerabilities can affect a person’s relationship with money. That way, our customer support agents can provide the highest quality of help, our design and engineering teams can build a service that takes vulnerabilities such as bipolar into account while our content team can share useful tips on the content hub.

2. Identifying vulnerable customers through machine learning

We developed OLIVE, a Natural Language Processing model that is capable of predicting a customer's vulnerability and identifying possible causes. So far, around 11% of our users show some sign of vulnerability. 25% of these people have indications of being over-indebted and 24% of them likely struggle with mental health. Our machine learning technology ensures that no customer is left behind and everybody receives the right help for their personal situation.

3. Creating a judgement-free environment where a person can access the right tools

The last thing we want to do is create barriers for a person from getting on top of their debt. The way that our platform and customer support works is by helping a person to find the best outcome for their personal situation, whether that means paying in full, delaying a payment, paying over time, asking for breathing space or being referred to independent debt advice.

Each time a customer mentions that they are going through a difficult time or says something that suggests they might be in a vulnerable position, our customer support agents take them through 'TEXAS':

T - Thank them.

E - Explain how their information will be used.

X - eXplicit consent to record the vulnerable customer's information

A - Ask three key questions to understand the customer’s situation

  • Does your mental health problem/disability make it difficult for you to manage your finances or make decisions? If so, how?
  • Does your mental health problem/disability affect your ability to deal or communicate with us? If so, how?
  • Does anyone need to help you manage your finances such as a carer or relative? If so, how?

S - Signpost, by referring them to organisations and charities that might be able to help. In the case of bipolar, we might point someone towards Mind, Bipolar UK or a debt charity such as StepChange.

When a customer indicates that they may be vulnerable we make sure that they are aware of breathing space. Should they opt for breathing space over setting up an affordable plan, we let them know that we will cease all contact and get back in touch after 30 days to check in and see if anything has changed.

If we are made aware that a customer was going through a manic episode, we do not set up a plan and instead offer breathing space and the right support links. We also check to see if anybody helps in dealing with their finances and make sure to keep them in the loop.

4. Looping insights back to companies

We use the data that we collect from our platform and ML technology such as OLIVE to provide companies with actionable insights and help them to create products that will protect their customer's financial health. For example, if a company happens to discover that many of their customers are struggling with bipolar, they might consider introducing a spending barrier that could lessen the chance of their customers overspending and falling into debt.

Interested in hearing more about the ways we can help support your customers? Why not get a demo.

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