Debt doubles chance of mental illness, study claims

17 September 2012, 15:37   By Tom Trott

PEOPLE struggling to repay debts are more than twice as likely to have mental health problems, a study released this month claims.

debt struggle up hill
Credit: chaiyapruek youprasert/

Writing in The Economic Journal Dr John Gathergood of the University of Nottingham found that going into arrears often directly leads to serious stress that can adversely affect many areas of people's lives.

Many older studies have show a correlation between debt and mental health problems but this is one of the first to show a cause and effect relationship.

Gathergood studied the effect of a factor the people in debt had no control over - house prices - to separate out the contributing factors.

Daily struggle

According to the study, many of those facing debt experience the problem as a daily struggle.

"One striking finding of my research is that many people with debt problems describe feelings of being unable to concentrate on day-to-day activities or make normal decisions," Gathergood told The Daily Mail.

Another study, published in the European Journal of Public Health in March this year also linked mental health problems and debt.

The 7,461 UK adults in debt the researchers interviewed were three times more likely than those not in debt to suffer from common mental disorders such as phobias and depression.

The more debts participants had, the more likely they were to suffer from mental health problems.

Social stigma stress

Dr Gathergood's research also found that those who live in a neighbourhood where going into arrears is less common suffer stress to a greater degree.

This is perhaps not a major surprise, we can all recognise social stigma as being a cause of stress whether it relates to financial issues or not.

However, it's interesting to see more research arguing that severity of debt is very much a subjective matter.

The climate

And, of course, all this research is more relevant than ever in the current economic climate.

"Concerns about money and debt place huge pressure on people's mental well being, so it is not surprising if stress and anxiety rise in times of economic crisis," Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said earlier this year.

"We know that the outcomes of recessions - rising debt, unemployment and insecure housing - are associated with poorer mental health in individuals and poorer mental health is often linked to poorer physical health."

It is increasingly important to recognise when people are suffering from stress, especially considering the physical effects that it can have: sustained periods of stress, anxiety and depression can lead to an increased risk of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease, the Foundation warns.

In need of some good advice

In the context of this research, it's interesting to note that Dr Gathergood has previously written extensively on the need for useful and accurate debt advice and support.

Useful Links

In late 2010 he warned that the need for debt advice would soon reach a level higher than during the height of the financial crisis in 2008.

That's a fear that seems to have been fulfilled: debt charities are over subscribed and under resourced as Government funding disappears.

Many lenders and debt charities have, as all the studies cited here recommend, trained their staff to help people with mental health problems.

Under the Lending Code, financial providers must help vulnerable customers who tell them that they are experiencing problems. See more information on the specific support they must offer in the 'Mental health and debt rights' link on the right.

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