Customer Service

By Helping Those With Mental Health Issues, Banks Can Help All Customers

A Yale University psychiatry professor calls on banks to make their services accessible to people with mental health issues

George Yacik

March 4, 2020

A woman speaks to a bank teller, in a blurred image

A psychiatry professor at Yale University is calling on banks and other financial institutions to make more of their products and services accessible to people with mental health issues.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 44 million Americans – or about one in five adults – experience a mental health issue every year. For them, “financial situations can be more complicated than they are for the rest of the population,” according to “Banking for All: Why Financial Institutions Need to Offer Supportive Banking Features,” a recently published report. It was headed by Dr. Annie Harper, an associate research scientist in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry.

Harper’s report says, “Financial institutions are missing out on an opportunity to effectively serve the millions of Americans who live with a mental health disability.” The study “proposes that financial institutions offer supportive banking features in order to make their products and services more accessible.”

Three Needed Features

Specifically, the report recommends “three features that responsible financial institutions could easily implement:

  1. customizable mobile banking notifications,
  2. self-imposed spending limits on debit cards, and
  3. view-only account access.”

“These features would both respond to the expressed needs of individuals with mental health disabilities, as well as comply with existing federal banking laws and regulations,” the report says. “In addition, these features will also appeal to a wide range of current and potential customers, such as young adults, individuals with disabilities, and older populations.”

TD Bank, for example, offers an “age-friendly” account in which third-parties have varying

degrees of access. “This not only demonstrates that the technology to enable those features already exists but that they have also gained traction among personal banking clients,” the report says.

 

Making Banks More Accessible

In an interview with Banking New England, Harper is quick to note that she’s not recommending that banks create products and services specifically for those with mental illness, and definitely not advising banks to market them that way. Rather, she says these products should be available to all customers.

“I think what would make banking more accessible to people with mental illness are actually products that would be great for customers generally, like enabling people to put self-imposed spending limits on themselves, or having customized alerts based on certain types of spending behavior,” she said. “That's something a lot of people would love. They would be good for everyone, not just people with mental illness. Some of these things don't have to be seen as only for people with mental illness.”

She uses the analogy of cutaway curbs to accommodate people with wheelchairs. “We all have an easier time walking the streets because of cutaway curves that were designed specifically for wheelchairs,” she says. “It's similar with banking.”

“All of us don't have mental illness, but all of us will be old one day and much of what we are recommending would also apply to the elderly,” Harper adds. “So I think there are ways to frame these services as good for everyone, whether it's now or later in life.”

 

Satisfy ADA and CRA

Harper’s report noted that banks are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to offer “reasonable accommodations” to their services to individuals with mental health disabilities. They also receive Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Community Development credit for doing so. “This goes to show that there are external incentives for banks that actively strive to serve their under- and unbanked populations,” the report says.

In addition to doing what’s right and legally required, it’s also good business, said Paul Hammer, recovery support specialist at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health. He and several banking, legal and mental health experts appeared with Harper at a panel discussion on the report before a standing-room-only audience at Yale in early November. Having such products that benefit all customers could give banks that provide them a competitive advantage, Hammer said.

Also on the panel was Jorge L. Perez, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Banking, which regulates state-charted financial institutions. While the department can’t force banks to offer these services, Perez said, it is responsible for making sure that they comply with applicable regulations, such as CRA and ADA. He said his agency’s main function in this regard is “educating” financial institutions about their responsibilities under the law.

 “This is not a topic that’s going away,” he said.

Model For The Nation

Harper said she is focusing her recommendations right now on local banks in New Haven “with the idea that if we can make something happen locally then it could be a model across the nation.”

One of the largest banks in the country – Wells Fargo – already offers a service that meets one of Harper’s suggestions: an account that allows the holder to assign another person to view it online but not make transactions.

 “The service can benefit everyone in general but certainly can be useful for people suffering with mental illness,” said Kenneth J. Allison, district manager for Wells’ Greater New Haven District.

The no-fee service is available nationwide to all of the bank’s customers who use online banking. It gives a view-only access option that an account holder can grant to anyone they would like to monitor the account and view transactions, but without the ability to make transactions. Account holders can remove access at any time. 

Online Monitoring A Solution

Harper’s report noted that “most financial institutions routinely offer online-monitoring accounts for their commercial banking customers” already, yet consumer accounts usually don’t. So “the technology is out there,” she said. However, she does note that “smaller institutions are more limited by what their systems allow them to do. This is a challenge to some small banks.”

Right now, applications from nonbank financial technology firms provide the most widely

available option for people who want help managing their finances, but don’t want to

give a third-party the kind of access and control associated with joint accounts or financial powers of attorney.

Monzo, the U.K.-based fintech that recently opened an office in Los Angeles and plans to begin offerings its services to U.S. consumers this year, offers a set of services with individuals with mental health problems explicitly in mind. That includes what it calls “positive friction,” which makes it harder for people to make financial decisions they may regret later.

Monzo’s philosophy, Harper says, is that “if they can serve people with mental health issues better, they can serve all customers better.”

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