Can credit card debt make you sick?

By Marianne Curphey

Does your stomach get tied in knots when your credit card bill shows up in the mail? Do you get a headache when you see the balance? Does that balance haunt your dreams and prevent you from getting a good night's sleep?

If so, your credit card debt could be damaging your health just as much as it's damaging your credit rating.

"There is definitely a link between unmanageable debt and health problems," says Matt Hartley, spokesman for the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS). "Finding yourself in unmanageable debt can be an extremely stressful experience, and your physical and mental health are just two areas of life that can be severely negatively affected as a consequence." debt-depression

Debt depression
Worrying over debt can be a significant catalyst for illness and depression, says Chris Fitch, research fellow at the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP).

Fitch says that, over the course of RCP's research, it looked at 50 studies about debt and mental illness. Those studies suggest that those who are in debt are roughly twice as likely as those who are not in debt to develop depression within 18 months. They also suggest that those with existing mental health conditions, are four times as likely to be in debt 18 months later.

"It does not matter how much you are in debt. It is about the worry and the uncertainty that goes with it," Fitch says.

Sometimes, it's not just the debt itself that contributes depression, but the debtor's interaction with creditors. Under the Lending Code (a voluntary code of standards for financial institutions in the UK), lenders have a duty to act "sympathetically and positively" when dealing with those who owe money. It also stipulates that creditors and lenders should encourage customers to get in touch if they are struggling to pay and should offer customers "appropriate and timely options" to "reduce the risk of deterioration in the customer's financial well-being."

Yet if creditors don't understand how mental health conditions make it difficult for people to control their spending, they might see debtors as simply irresponsible. And this attitude might make for an unhealthy interaction with those in debt. Over the past decade, Fitch says, lenders are becoming more aware of this -- and the industry is now improving its training for creditors.

Cause and effect
Can debt make you physically, as well as mentally, ill? What affects your mind can affect your body. Depression and stress have been tied to loss of appetite, loss of sleep, vitamin deficiencies, fatigue and immune system problems, according to RCP.  These things can make your body more susceptible to physical illness. Moreover, prolonged stress can cause stomach troubles and headaches.

To make things worse, money troubles and illness can trap a debtor in a dangerous cycle. The debt feeds the depression, stress and physical symptoms, while the depression, stress and physical discomfort make it difficult to handle debt. According to Matthew Taylor, senior media officer for mental health charity Mind, debt can be "both a consequence and catalyst" of:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Self-harm and suicidal thoughts
  • Strain on personal relationships
  • Social exclusion and low self-esteem

Bouncing back
Depressing debt and physical malaise can make it "tempting to stick your head in the sand," Hartley says. Yet that course of action is unhealthy.

"The potential health implications of trying to cope with debt on your own, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition, make it even more important that you tackle the problem as early as possible," Hartley says.

Hartley recommends seeking free help from a charity that offers debt counselling. A debt charity can give free, impartial and independent advice on how to deal with your debts -- and will be able to deal with your creditors on your behalf, which takes much of the stress of the situation.

"Free help and support is available, and if your debts have begun to affect your health, then it's all the more reason to take advantage of it by contacting a debt advice charity straight away," Hartley says.

If you have a condition that makes controlling debt - and paying it back - difficult, having a clear game plan can be helpful. Mind has the following tips for dealing with debt:

  • Don't ignore debt.
  • Don't assume you have to deal with your debt alone. Get independent advice before borrowing money to pay off your debts.
  • When drawing up a budget, be sure to include debt repayments. Failing to do so lets you hide your debts out of sight, where they will only grow.
  • Prioritise your debts. Pay them off one by one, starting with the most expensive debt.
  • Be honest with our creditors. Tell them that you are having problems. They might offer you a break. Keep copies of all letters and emails you exchange with those you owe money.

"If you're worried that you may be at risk of falling into debt, there is a lot you can do about it and the earlier you start the better," says Taylor. "Facing up to a difficult situation may not be easy, but you are likely to sleep better once you have a plan of action."

See related: 6 tips for dealing with debt stress, Blogger Q&A: How I got out of debt

Published: 23 April 2012