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Mary Hill, who suffers from chronic depression, says opening a bank account was transformative: 'It's given me some confidence, to know that I can manage a little bit of money.'

Banks were the last place Eliza felt comfortable.

People stared. There were lineups. The whole process was confusing, intimidating. When she first went with her social worker to get a bank account three years ago, she was so agitated that she verged on the hostile.

As months went by, though, and tellers greeted her by name, banking got easier. Eliza (not her real name) started to make eye contact with staff and chat about the weather. Nowadays, she goes every week on her own, and greets other customers in line.

That's the transformation that Lisa Jamieson, a community mental-health consultant, and Wendy Lefebvre, the bank branch manager, saw take place, as part of a pilot project under way in Ottawa.

"This is like mental-health recovery, happening in a bank line," says Ms. Jamieson, who works for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Banking is the bête noire of those suffering mental-health challenges. The problems, especially for those with severe illnesses, can have a domino effect: If you feel unwelcome in a bank, or lack ID to get an account, you might turn to pricier cheque cashers. If you carry around most of your monthly disability cheque in cash, you are vulnerable to theft or losses or spending it all at once. Rents get missed, hydro bills are left unpaid and poor budgeting means no cash for food at month's end.

To tackle these problems, Ottawa mental-health workers and the Toronto-Dominion Bank have set up people who have severe mental illnesses with savings accounts, debit cards, direct deposits and lessons in money management. The 29 participants, including Eliza, range from those with schizophrenia to serious mood disorders. All receive long-term disability cheques, which, at $1,000 a month, puts them in the low-income range.

The premise: stabilize peoples' finances, and you might help stabilize mental health.

The project speaks to the issues of the "unbanked," a great swath of the marginalized in Canadian society.

Being unbanked, or underbanked, means no chance of saving and budgeting, key factors that can help people get off social assistance. Studies have shown that better handling of finances is linked to better overall functioning - people stick to their treatment plans and cut drug and alcohol use. It reduces the risk of homelessness and boosts employment outcomes.

The issue is severe enough that Canada's largest mental-health facility recently opened a bank branch right in its Toronto facilities. The branch, with a local credit union, gives patients alternatives to higher-priced cheque cashers or payday lenders.

"We've had a lot of concerns about banking issues over the years," says John Trainor, program director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "For people with more serious and ongoing illnesses, specialized programs in banking can really help."

The approach comes amid a broader move among banks to bolster their physical presence in cities - including recent openings in Toronto's Regent Park and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. "Banks are changing the way they look to be more welcoming ... looking at ways to get more people into branches, opening more branches and increasing hours," says Maura Drew-Lytle, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Bankers Association.

New services also aim to reach people with disabilities. The big banks now offer registered disability savings plans, a federal government-backed program that gives tax advantages and grants to people with disabilities who set up these accounts.

The Royal Bank of Canada says "thousands" have opened these accounts since it began offering them last year, though it estimates that 500,000 people in Canada could qualify. The Bank of Montreal boasts that it has 70 per cent of that market share.

Modest beginnings

Back in Ottawa, a savings account with $115 sits in a white-brick bank.

It's modest. But to Mary Hill, a warm, effusive woman who has been carefully tucking away income from a weekly child-care job for the past three years, it's hugely important because it's her first asset. It's also her first bank account, and with it her first debit card.

Ms. Hill, who is 52 and suffers from chronic depression, describes the process of becoming banked as transformative. "I've never had any money of my own. It's about the only thing I own - I don't have a car. I don't own a TV. But I can say I have ownership of this bank account. It's given me some confidence, to know that I can manage a little bit of money."

The bank account and the social interaction that went with it has been a catalyst. She's now active in the community. She wants to move off long-term disability assistance and land a job as a financial literacy trainer.

The results of the pilot project, started in June, 2007, have exceeded hopes. An independent study by Carleton University shows that three-quarters of these new clients have more control over their money. More than two-thirds say it lasts longer. Participants reported a 25-per-cent drop in borrowing money from friends and family. The success is such that 10 other TD branches in the Ottawa area are now adopting a similar strategy.

This project never would have happened without a champion at a bank. Wendy Lefebvre works at a branch at the corner of Wellington and Holland that is surrounded by rooming houses or group homes. Heather Menzies, an author with an adult son suffering from schizophrenia, approached Ms. Lefebvre in 2007 about the possibility of helping others.

"I [had]watched my son get totally stressed and it would contribute to a relapse, so he'd have to go back into the hospital," Ms. Menzies says. "No money for rent or food and threats the hydro would be cut off."

Until three years ago. Donald, then 25, had stabilized, helped by a number of reasons, including a bank account. Ms. Menzies had become an informal trustee of his new account and helped to set up direct deposits. Budgeting got easier as payments were divvied into weekly portions. The bank account "instantly reduced the daily chaos of his life. The rent was being paid. It was huge."

He has since been living independently, drug-free.

After meeting Ms. Menzies and reading a banking survey of 100 Ottawa mental-health workers and their clients, Ms. Lefebvre was convinced. The comments from the survey were searing: "Lack of funds for basic needs and shelter resulted in eviction," read one. "It makes me poorer than I already am," read another. "Devastating loss of control, frustration, lack of trust."

"Reading that survey really was an eye-opener," Ms. Lefebvre says. "I wanted to help get people back on their feet, and give them some help in managing their finances in a safe environment."

So began a quiet testing ground: Referrals trickled in through mental-health service providers. The program helped participants fill out forms to get a no-fee account. It taught them how to use bank machines, review bank statements and budget. It established direct deposits of government cheques, with no fees. It explained how fees can escalate if people use ATMs at other outlets.

Critically, bank staff were taught to treat these clients, who may look or act differently at times, as they would any customer - with dignity and respect. Sometimes, that meant slowing down the tempo, avoiding direct eye contact, or taking clients to the side to give them extra assistance.

Can it grow?

Part of TD's motivation is serving the community. But it has a business case for attracting more customers. "There's no question we have a responsibility to be supportive," says Scott Mullin, the bank's vice-president of government and community relations. "At the same time, these are people who have every capacity to be potential customers for us."

While Carleton University's evaluation urged that this type of service be expanded across the country, TD is circumspect on whether this initiative will become part of a national strategy. But the pilot project has borne fruit. "Financial stability is helping improve the quality of life of those living with a chronic mental illness," by reducing risk of financial exploitation, bolstering budgeting skills and increasing confidence, says Ottawa-based psychiatrist Chantal Whelan, who is familiar with the project.

"It's lessening the crises that happen in a month. The rent will get paid, so they're less likely to get evicted. It builds stability, and that allows people to look at other aspects of their lives and work on their mental health," Ms. Jamieson says.

Tavia Grant is a reporter with Report on Business

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