The shocking impact that soaring bills are having on mental health has been laid bare by a report that highlights how money worries are driving many people to thoughts of suicide.
The Money and Mental Health policy institute, a charity founded and chaired by the consumer champion Martin Lewis, reported that 17% of respondents to a survey said they had experienced suicidal ideation over the past nine months owing to the rising cost of living.
About three in 10 of the 2,049 UK adults selected by YouGov said they had fallen behind with at least one bill. The polling found harassment by debt collectors was playing a big role in the mental health of those in arrears. At least 11% of those questioned said they now “dread” opening the post from banks, energy companies and other creditors.
The report’s authors have called on the government to urgently adopt US-style rules to stop debt collectors bombarding people about overdue bills. They also call for the national suicide prevention strategy’s update to be published urgently to better reflect the role of financial difficulty as a contributing factor.
The charity said there were no firm legal rules in the UK limiting how often debt collectors can contact people about overdue bills, unlike in the US where creditors are allowed to call debtors up to seven times in a week.
One respondent to the report described how he had received seven contacts in seven hours from a single debt collection agency, forcing him to stop answering his phone and messages and resulting in him becoming a recluse.
Lewis, the founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, has been open about his own mental health struggles. He said: “The link between serious financial problems and suicidal thoughts is long established. So it’s no surprise that the cost of living crisis, with bills hugely increasing, on the back of the pandemic is causing some people growing distress.
“Yet the scale of this distress is particularly worrying, and it leaves a serious concern about the impact on the number of people who may consider taking their own lives. We know that being bombarded with letters, calls and threats of court action from debt collectors can lead people to feel hopeless, helpless and even contribute to people becoming suicidal. So the sooner there are specific protections put in place to limit how and how often debt collectors can contact people about missed payments the better – even the bastion of free markets, the USA, has tighter rules on that than we do.”
Helen Undy, the charity’s chief executive, said suicide rates increased in the last recession and the government needed to act with urgency to learn the lessons from that time. “There is rarely a single cause for someone becoming suicidal, but it’s clear that the barrage of letters and calls bombarding people with debt problems is causing huge distress.”
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A government spokesperson said: “We understand the negative impact financial troubles can have on a person’s mental health, and the government is committed to supporting those in problem debt. Through our Breathing Space scheme, we have protected over 100,000 people who are unable to afford their debt repayments by pausing enforcement action, creditor contact and most interest, fees and charges for a 60-day period, giving them time to find a debt solution that works for them”.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.