Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Please note: This blog contains information on the subject of suicide that some people may find distressing.
It’s time to Stop the Debt Threats during the cost of living crisis
6 December 2022
The pile of bills and letters stacking up on the doormat. The missed calls, voicemails and texts from debt collectors. The panic when the doorbell rings. The growing sense of feeling bombarded and overwhelmed.
Sadly, this is the everyday reality for the many people struggling with their finances during the cost of living crisis.
As our new research shows, rising costs are taking a devastating toll on the mental health of many people across the UK. Nationally representative polling published in the research suggests that 1 in 6 UK adults have experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of the cost of living crisis — amounting to nearly 9m people across the country.
But this risk goes up significantly for people who are behind on bills, nearly half of whom say they have experienced suicidal feelings. Perhaps most worryingly, 1 in 8 people who are behind on at least one payment say they have attempted to take their own life in the past nine months.
The impact of debt letters
There is normally a range of factors that contribute to someone becoming suicidal. But one thing that comes through really strongly in our research is the distress caused by the barrage of letters, calls and messages people receive from debt collectors when they fall behind on payments.
Members of our Research Community told us that this deluge is leaving them feeling bombarded, bullied and unable to see a way out of their situation. For some people, it is contributing to them becoming suicidal.
“They keep sending letters about legal action even though I try to pay what I can every month. It causes tremendous damage to my mental health so much that I became suicidal.” Expert by experience
We’ve heard stories of people receiving seven different messages from the same creditor over the course of just seven hours, and via a range of channels including phone calls, text and emails. Given that many people will have debts with more than one lender, it’s easy to see how this behaviour by debt collectors leaves people feeling harassed and scared.
How the government can Stop the Debt Threats
In other countries such as the US, there are legal limits on how often creditors can contact you. But shockingly, no specific limits exist in the UK. The current guidance from the Financial Conduct Authority (which regulates financial services) simply states that creditors and debt collectors should not contact people in arrears ‘at unreasonable intervals’ — but it does not stipulate how often is too much.
In practice this seems to give debt collectors the green light to contact people as much as they like, which is ramping up the distress that many people face.
Today, we’ve relaunched our Stop the Debt Threats campaign, to call on the government to stop people being bombarded by debt collectors.
Back in 2020, we had an important campaign win when the government agreed to change decades-old laws which forced creditors to include threatening content in debt letters.
But now we want the government to take action to address the volume of letters and calls people get when they fall behind on bills.
Not only will that prevent unnecessary distress, it could save lives during the cost of living crisis.
Our Stop the Debt Threats campaign has already secured government action to address the harm that aggressive debt collection practices can cause. In the coming months we will step up efforts to persuade the government to act again, to stop people being bombarded when they are already struggling with debts and distress.
If you are struggling with suicidal feelings, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. For 24-hour support you can call the on 116 123 or online here.
For further advice on mental health and finances, please visit our Get Help page.