Nic Murray, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Helping those at risk: financial difficulty and suicide prevention

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. 

Coming just a few days before national suicide prevention day on Sunday, the latest ONS figures on suicides in Great Britain during 2016 are a timely reminder of the scale of this problem. The headline figures make for sobering reading: there were 5,688 suicides registered in 2016. This is a 4.7% decrease compared to 2015, and the lowest figure since 2011, which feels like progress, but experts warn against jumping to conclusions from year on year changes in these figures – especially in the face of a longer-term trend which has shown a general increase in suicide rates over the last nine years. Given every life taken by suicide is a tragedy, this figure remains far too high.

Doing something about it

Thankfully there is strong recognition of this issue politically and growing work being done to address it. Last year the Health Select Committee carried out an inquiry into suicide prevention, to which we submitted evidence. And in January Theresa May launched an updated national suicide prevention strategy in England. This recognised the need to consider financial difficulties as a risk factor, which may particularly impact men.

Money problems may often seem insurmountable, while a financial crisis can, in some cases, serve as a trigger for suicidal ideation.

“My financial situation causes stress every day. It’s like a black cloud hanging over me every day. It never goes away…”

The recent Health Select Committee Inquiry on suicide prevention stated that those who complete suicide fall broadly into three groups:

  • Those not in contact with GPs
  • Those who have contact with GPs in last year
  • Those under the care of specialist mental health team.

Given people in problem debt are twice as likely to think about suicide as those not in financial difficulty, we believe there is a key role to be played by government, public services, advice agencies and the financial services industry to consider how they reach each of these groups, and what they can do to make sure people in financial difficulty get the help they need.

Training for frontline staff

Recent research from Bristol PFRC has found that, in the last year, one in four frontline debt collection staff spoke to at least one customer they seriously believed might take their own life. Encountering someone in such distress can seem a daunting task for staff, but not knowing how to respond can mean the consequences are catastrophic. This is why we are calling for all frontline staff in banks, building societies and credit card companies to have basic mental health awareness training and for those working in collections to receive additional training.

Routinely asking about finances

One in four British adults with a mental health problem is also in problem debt.  This means that a considerable number of people in contact with healthcare providers are also struggling to manage their finances. Sadly they are often struggling in silence and not receiving the help that could lift this additional burden. We have found that only 6% of people experiencing financial difficulty while receiving treatment through IAPT were referred on to specialist help. By routinely screening for and signposting people in financial difficulty to money advice, healthcare providers could ensure that help is received when it’s needed and these problems aren’t left to spiral out of control.

Support after mental health crises

Understanding and tackling financial difficulty is important not just in preventing a crisis but dealing with the consequences of one too, to help recovery and also protect against future difficulties. A mental health crisis can often come alongside other issues like a relationship breakdown, homelessness or redundancy. During these periods people may also be left unable to work. All of which can leave people prone to sudden and substantial income shocks. People who have had a major financial crisis like this in the past six months are nearly eight times as likely to experience suicidal thoughts as those who have not. This leaves those who faced a financial crisis alongside their mental health crisis particularly vulnerable.

We hope that with mental health crisis care currently on the political agenda, any steps taken will include addressing the possible financial impacts of a mental health crisis. We will be conducting in-depth research to better understand these impacts and what could be done to mitigate them in the coming months.