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British Gas Energy Trust roundtable- Rural Location and Mental Health

A leading advice charity says a staggering nine out of ten people it supports are presenting with mental health issues.

The team at Navigate, which works across Devon and Somerset to provide specialist one to one support for people experiencing social isolation and financial hardship, say that the propensity of people experiencing mental health issues means it often takes a lot longer to support individuals to reach financial stability.

And the issues are heightened in rural communities where access to information is often hard to come by for many residents.

This July, the issues surrounding mental health, rural living and energy will be topics of conversation at British Gas Energy Trust’s latest roundtable event, organised to commemorate the charity funder’s 20th anniversary.

Over two decades the Trust has been supporting people in or at risk of fuel poverty with community-based money and energy advice and guidance, energy debt grants and emergency fuel vouchers, and other much needed support.

In 2024, it has organised a series of roundtables across Britain looking at ‘alleviating the detrimental impact of fuel poverty: what works, what happens next’.

Speaking ahead of the roundtable, Navigate’s Chief Executive Officer, Mel Allen, said:

“It is well documented that almost one in five people with mental health problems are in problem debt, and those with mental ill health are three and a half times more likely to be in problem debt than people without mental health problems. Add to that the compounding issues of rurality and isolation, it is a big issue.

“Around 90% of the people we work with have a mental health condition – diagnosed or undiagnosed.

“We are now living and working in a time where many people’s basic needs are not being met. We are seeing more deficit budgets as the cost of living creeps into every area of their lives from rises in the price of rent, mortgage interest rates, energy costs, fuel and food. Most of the people we see will not have seen an increase in their income which makes achieving long term financial resilience harder and sometimes even impossible. This intractable gap means our clients are now presenting with increased feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness.

“We’ve seen an increase in people presenting with mental health conditions and more and more people are needing more of our time as a result.

“This can make it harder to engage with people at the start too. It takes time to build up the trust and help them navigate the journey to build their long-term resilience.

“A lot of people feel like they have been let down and don’t think there is any service that can help them.”

With rurality comes the added difficulty of poor to non-existent broadband connectivity and a negative impact from companies and services changing to remote contact only. Some 10.7% of Devon has slow broadband speeds, while the national average is just 1.3%.

Roxi Reeder, Partnerships and Social Policy Lead at Navigate, said:

“Many people have an inability to access digital information for a variety of reasons. Many of our clients are unable to monitor bills and debt. They’re unable to register for things if they have no email account.

“You have to go in person, to meet local GPs and Social Prescribers, foodbanks and to visit those parish councils to make connections. You can’t just put a poster up and hope that someone will call. It is about building trust. As an organisation we take a whole team approach to building these vital relationships which helps to counter capacity issues and ultimately support our clients in a holistic way.”

The charity is supporting hundreds of people across its communities, including people like Molly* – a self-employed single mum whose life changed dramatically when her parents died during the coronavirus pandemic.

Molly became a recluse, hardly ever leaving the house. She also became unwell, was unable to open her post and she started struggling financially.

Navigate stepped in to support her with a series of interventions, including accessing British Gas Energy Trust emergency funds, writing off debt, creating payment plans, receiving energy advice and referrals to health support services.

Molly said:

“Maria (Navigate Debt and Energy Adviser) saw me as me. She didn’t see me as a pile of debt; she didn’t see me as someone with mental health problems; she didn’t see me as a single mum, living in a housing association house. She saw me as me. And that is really important.

“Actually, the relief I felt from having Maria help me with sorting the debt out, improved my mental health, which made me think with a clearer head to process every other step.”

More information about the roundtables can be found here.

*Name changed to protect identity