Nikki Bond, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health

How local authorities can help break the link between problem debt and suicide

07 December 2018

Earlier this week, we published a report exploring the links between financial difficulty, debt and suicide which shows that in England alone last year, 420,000 people in problem debt thought about suicide. One contributing factor is the intimidating letters people in problem debt receive from lenders, which can leave them feeling there is no way out of their situation. That’s why we’ve launched our new Stop the #DebtThreats campaign, which you can read about here.

But ending intimidating debt letters in only one part of the solution. Tackling a problem this big requires a multilayered approach, and local public health teams are a big part of the puzzle.

Recognising financial difficulty as a risk factor for suicidality

In 2017, the National Suicide Prevention Strategy mandated public health teams to write and implement local area multi-agency suicide prevention plans. These plans must set out the specific needs of the individual local area, alongside plans for service provision to prevent deaths by suicides, and must be updated annually.

As part of our research, we independently audited local authority suicide prevention strategies and action plans, to assess the extent to which financial difficulties were recognised as a risk factor for suicide, and to understand what targeted interventions are in place to tackle this. In reviewing 118 plans available online or made available to us by the local Director of Public Health (plans for 34 other local authorities were not available) we found that:

  • Almost all (93%) recognised economic factors as a risk factor for suicide
  • Few authorities demonstrated a detailed understanding of how and why financial difficulties specifically can increase the risk of suicidality
  • Only 13% of audited authorities were commissioning a targeted intervention to tackle the link between financial difficulty and suicide.

Some local authorities describe how wider economic conditions such as deprivation and unemployment can affect suicide risk. Others conflate these wider conditions with personal financial problems like problem debts. The confusion of broad economic factors like unemployment and personal economic factors like financial difficulty, serve to prevent authorities from identifying interventions, such as the provision of accessible debt advice to tackle the problem.

Local authorities as creditors

But local authorities have a much broader relationship with their communities than just organising public health.

Unfortunately, none of the suicide prevention plans we audited recognised the role of local authorities in the collection of outstanding public debts, such as unpaid council tax or parking fines. The consequences for unpaid public debts can be severe, particularly in the case of council tax, which can result in imprisonment. There is also evidence that some local authority collection practices are inflexible and aggressive. This combination of poor practice and severe consequences can cause serious psychological harm for people and can drive suicidality.

The failure of local authorities to recognise the links between their role in suicide prevention and their own in-house collection practices is a serious oversight. In their own collections processes, local authorities have a direct opportunity to tackle suicide risk among those in problem debt. One way to do this would be by adopting the good practice guidelines for council tax collections as set out by Citizens Advice and the Local Government Association

Next steps

In October, the government committed to another review of local authority suicide prevention plans. We would like this review to go further than identifying local authorities who have an up-to-date plan in place, by auditing the quality of those plans, ensuring that financial difficulty is recognised as a risk factor for suicidality and that appropriate interventions are in place to tackle this link.