Rachel Braverman, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

The role of essential services in preventing suicide

21 March 2019

Please note: this post contains information about suicide that readers may find distressing. If you’re in need of support, you can call Samaritans for free on 116 123 anytime of the day – or you can text SHOUT to 85258. For information about where to find support with your money or mental health, you can find some resources on our get help page

Stigma around debt is huge. People in problem debt may not tell their friends about their difficulties, because they see falling behind on payments as a personal failure. They may hide it from their families, and even their partners may not know. The sense of shame can make it hard to find help. People can feel trapped in an impossible situation, that they are a burden to others and that taking their own life is the only way to escape. And if friends and family can’t help because they don’t know what’s going on, who can?

“The debt I found myself in was something I couldn’t see a way out of and thought suicide was my best bet and the only way out. I was too embarrassed to tell friends or family about it all.”

A unique insight

Financial services, water, energy and telecoms suppliers are intimately involved with people who owe them money and who may be at risk. In some cases, they may be the only organisations who know about a person’s financial situation – and who could step in and offer help.

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to be able to end financial difficulty overnight. But there is lots that firms can do to improve the support offered to customers in problem debt, and to reduce the risk of suicide.

Be there when people reach out

The first thing firms should think about is how they respond if a customer tells them that they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. In the last year, one in three frontline collections staff have spoken to a customer who said they might take their own life. We know that many firms respond well, for example, by making referrals to specialist support services, like the Samaritans. However, many frontline collections staff are uncertain about what to do if they felt a customer might try to take their own life. Making sure staff have the right tools and training to be able to understand and support customers who disclose suicidal feelings.

Reduce the risk

In our recent report, A silent killer: Breaking the link between financial difficulty and suicide, we gathered stories from hundreds of people who have experienced suicidal thoughts while in financial difficulties. Many told us of particular parts of the collections process which caused particular distress, including visits from bailiffs and receiving letters demanding payments.

“Recently I’ve found that receiving that dreaded letter in the mail telling me I’ve missed a payment on my debt repayment plan has been enough for me to think ‘this is it, I’m done’.”

The tone and design of collections letters can make an enormous difference in how people respond to them. Having plucked up the courage to open the dreaded brown envelope from a creditor or service provider, the first thing people in debt read is often a stark reminder of the penalties they face if they don’t pay. There may then be information on where to get help, but having read the warnings, people in financial difficulty may well have abandoned the letter.

We’d like to see firms reframing standardised letters, to give more prominence to offers of help and signposting to support. At the moment, essential services providers are sometimes limited in the changes they can make, as much of the content is prescribed by regulation. We were therefore pleased that the energy regulator Ofgem announced plans at the end of last year to update the rules for the energy industry, with a promise to make them more “informative and accessible”. And we hope to bring about similar improvements for financial services firms through our Stop the #DebtThreats campaign.

Spot people who might need help

We also urge firms to make better use of the customer data available to them – including unusual transactions or usage patterns – to identify people who may be at risk of financial difficulty and make proactive offers of support before matters escalate. This may be particularly important in reaching people who have not felt able to talk to friends or family about their financial situation, who may be particularly at risk. While doing this sort of data analysis might sound scary, and we need to have some open conversations about how we manage possible risks, if it could get help to those who are most vulnerable it is certainly worth exploring – and happily, that’s exactly what we’re doing through our new programme in partnership with the FCA.

An essential opportunity

Altogether, financial services, water, energy and telecoms companies are well placed to be able to do more to support customers who disclose suicidal thoughts, to spot people at risk and to take measures to ensure those risks are minimised. A silent killer has been sobering reading for many people across essential services firms, but we hope that many will also choose to take action to support customers in financial difficulty, and save lives.