How your debt, mental health issues are related

By Marianne Curphey


Strained finances and mental health problems are often very closely connected. Frequently one will exacerbate the other.

According to the Money Advice Trust, 14 per cent of people who called its free debt helpline National Debtline in 2016 cited mental health problems as the main reason they fell into debt. Additionally, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute's January 2017 "Seeing Through the Fog" report found that 93% of those with mental illness said they spend more when they are unwell.

The link between debt and mental health issues is a problem banks and card companies are aware of, but one that customers are often reluctant to reveal.

"In my experience, people with debt concerns are often in denial," says Andrew Kinder, a chartered counselling and chartered occupational psychologist at OH Assist, and chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

It's also common for people to feel "completely hopeless" because they worry that their debt will never be paid off, he says. "That cycle can produce depression and mental health issues, and it can be corrosive over the long term."

People often feel "overwhelmed" by debt and don't know where to turn, says  Richard Sherry, consultant clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of Psychological Systems Ltd in London and spokesman for the International Conferences for Addiction and Associated Disorders.

"It's a very important area that is fairly unrecognised," he says. "Worries about money and debt have a greater effect on people's emotional wellbeing and mental health than is talked about."

If you are struggling with issues around debt and mental health, you may find that working with your bank to sort things out is a better option than trying to hide the problem.

What can - and should - your bank do to help?
Banks must comply with the Lending Code, which covers credit cards, overdrafts and unsecured loans.

This means that if you have told your bank that you have a mental health problem your financial institution should give you time to find the information that you need when talking about your debt. Your bank also should consider keeping in-house any collection of your debt, rather than outsourcing it to an agency.

Your bank may also have a specialist team you can talk to. Financial institutions are under an obligation to treat you fairly.

If you do decide to reveal a mental health condition to your bank or card provider, the financial institution should treat any information you provide as sensitive personal data under the Data Protection Act. This restricts the way that information is used.

The Debt & Mental Health Evidence Form, available from general practitioner (GP) surgeries, enables you to prove you are experiencing mental health problems that seriously affect your ability to manage your money. The form is completed by health and social care professionals.

"Currently, GPs are able to set their own charges for a range of documentation, including the Debt & Mental Health Evidence Form," Jane Tully, director of external affairs at the Money Advice Trust, said in an emailed response to questions. According to recent research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, she said, up to a third of GPs choose to charge for the documentation. 

"However, after lots of campaigning from advice and mental health charities, the government announced last month that it would be reviewing this system, meaning that fee changes or limits are possible in the future," she said.

Where to find help
It doesn't matter how you got into debt. The important thing is to get help as soon as you feel your debt is getting out of control, Kinder says.

"For assistance with debt and money management, seek free advice from a charity-run service, such as National Debtline or Citizens Advice, as early as you are able to," Tully said. Debt charities can provide free advice, negotiate with creditors, and advise you on government benefits that you might not be claiming.

She also suggests organisations such as Rethink and Sane, which offer support and advice for a range of mental health issues, or Mind, which provides information to help individuals make choices about their treatment and find sources of support.

"And, of course, anyone concerned about their mental health should see their GP," Tully said.

Another option is to take free advice available at your workplace. This might be in the form of money advice seminars or a confidential helpline.

"This can provide hope for people," Kinder says. "We can look at what is on the table and look at what can be done. It might mean negotiating with creditors or asking them to freeze interest charges."

Kinder says that debt feeds into mental ill heath, and that someone who is depressed is less likely to ask for help.

"If you are having sleepless nights, then it is time to take action," Kinder says. "It might be an employee assistance programme at work or a charity helpline. Both can provide practical support on debt issues.

"The priority is to get help and advice with debt, and the clinical priority is to find emotional support and counselling."

See related: Is your debt hurting your kids?, Helping mental illness patients cope with debt

Published: 23 February 2017