Kate Langston, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Breaking the link between financial difficulty and suicide

10 September 2019

Last week we learned that suicide rates in the UK have risen for the first time in over five years. This is a startling wake up call to all of us that we can and must do more to prevent the tragic loss of life to suicide.

We know there are many factors that can lead someone to take their own life, and any effective prevention strategy needs to reflect this. However, one factor that has historically been overlooked in relation to suicide is the role of financial difficulty. Our 2018 report, A silent killer, showed that over 100,000 people in problem debt attempt suicide each year in England alone. This is a staggering figure, which highlights an urgent need to improve our understanding of this issue as a society, and to take action to address it. So this World Suicide Prevention Day, we’re focusing on three key actions that the government, firms and local authorities can take to help to break the link between financial difficulty and suicide – and hopefully save lives:

1. Ending aggressive debt collection processes

For many people who are struggling with problem debt, the constant barrage of letters they receive from creditors – which often use intimidating language, and can contain threats of court action right at the top – can leave them feeling desperate and unable to see a way out of their situation.

Rules governing the content of some of these letters are set out in law. So we’re calling on the government to change these rules, to make these letters less threatening and more supportive. You can help us persuade the government to stop these ‘debt threats’ by signing our petition here.

We also know that aggressive behaviour by bailiffs can also cause significant distress to people struggling with their mental health and debt. Alongside our partners in the Taking Control campaign, we’re calling on the government to introduce an independent regulator and an independent complaints process, to crackdown on bailiffs that break the rules.

2. Improving local suicide prevention strategies

From 2017, all local authorities were required to have a suicide prevention strategy in place, outlining the steps they’re taking to reduce suicides in their area. Last year, we carried out an audit of these plans to see how many recognised financial difficulty as a risk factor. We found that while many recognised broader economic conditions, such as unemployment as a risk, very few focused on specific issues around debt and personal finances. 

Earlier this year, the government said it would work with local authorities to identify where prevention plans are working well, and how they might be improved. We’d like to see them use this opportunity to make sure all plans recognise financial difficulty as a risk factor for suicide, and that appropriate interventions are in place to tackle this link.

3. Helping firms identify and support customers in distress

In many cases, an essential services firm, such as a bank or energy supplier, may be the only organisation that knows when someone is struggling with problem debt. This may be as a result of someone disclosing their situation to their provider, but the data that firms hold on their customers can also be an important indicator that someone is in difficulty – for example, if there is a sharp reduction in someone’s energy usage or income.

We’d like to see more firms using the data available to them to identify when a customer might be struggling, and take steps to offer appropriate support. We have spent the last nine months working with firms and consulting with our Research Community on how this could be done, and will be publishing our findings next month. But one thing that is key is that firms ensure their staff are given appropriate training to know how to respond sensitively and supportively if a customer is in distress.

Much more that we can do

Each of these recommendations presents a valuable opportunity to help save lives, and we are working with partners across organisations and sectors to make them a reality. But we know there is still much more that can be done to ensure that people in financial difficulty receive the right support at the right time to prevent further tragedy. The health, debt advice, local government and essential services sectors all have a role to play in this – find out more by reading our A silent killer report here.