Merlyn Holkar, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Financial difficulties and suicide: taking a closer look at the numbers

5 February 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.

“My debt stops me from getting over my depression… I’m terrified of the debt I am in and I can’t see a way out. It makes me feel suicidal at times.”

At the end of last year we released A Silent Killer, a report looking at the relationship between money problems and suicide, and setting out a range of steps that government, local authorities and essential service providers can take to intervene and save lives. This project includes new analysis of the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, an official survey that provides a representative snapshot of the mental health of the English population. Here, we take a closer look at some of the key statistics, that demonstrate the shocking scale of the issue.

Before we get to the stats, though, it’s important to recognise that suicide is a complex phenomenon. There are usually a range of social factors, life events and other circumstances that drive someone to think about suicide. We focus narrowly on money problems, as we think they are an overlooked factor which can contribute to people becoming suicidal. We also think there’s lots more that can be done to reduce the psychological harm that they can cause and to help people out of money problems altogether.

Over 420,000 people in problem debt consider taking their own life in England each year

In 2017, nearly 6,000 people took their own lives in the UK. To properly understand and address this issue, we must consider that for every person who takes their own life, there are many more who make an attempt or experience suicidal thoughts. Some people describe how long term poverty has worn away at their resilience over time. When people become hopeless about their financial situation, not believing that a better future is possible, they can become particularly vulnerable to thoughts about suicide, and suicide risk can increase.

Our research found that people in problem debt are three times as likely to consider suicide as those without a debt problem. While 4% of those who are debt free think about suicide each year, this rises to one in eight (13%) among people who have been seriously behind on bills or credit payments over the same period.

“I absolutely dread the future as I have no savings or any means to support myself in old age, which adds to my suicidal thinking.”

More than 100,000 people in problem debt attempt suicide in England each year

For some people, suicidal thoughts can develop into suicidal intent and attempts at suicide. About one in a hundred people (1.1%) attempt suicide each year, but experiencing financial difficulties seriously increases this risk. We found that people in problem debt are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide as those who aren’t, with 3% attempting suicide each year.

A sudden financial problem can rapidly increase someone’s risk of suicide, or act as a trigger for a suicide attempt, particularly when someone is already struggling with other long term issues. Some people explain that income shocks, for instance driven by time off work sick or a benefit sanction, can undermine their financial security and stoke feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, which can lead to suicidality.

“I was a complete failure to my children I believed, because my benefits had been delayed and sanctioned due to me [not turning] up to appointments… I attempted suicide numerous times.”

What can we do?

These statistics paint a bleak picture. But every suicide is preventable and every single financial problem is resolvable. As our report shows, there are steps that national and local government, essential services firms and health professionals can take to address these issues.

One factor which can leave people in problem debt feeling there is no hope is the intimidating letters they receive from from creditors. Based on the experiences of our Research Community, we’re currently campaigning to put an end to these letters, which we think would make a big difference for people struggling with debts and save lives. Click here to find out more and to sign the petition.