Government must stop debt collectors bombarding people about missed payments — as 1 in 8 people who are behind on a bill have attempted suicide during cost of living crisis
6 December 2022
The government should urgently adopt US-style rules to stop debt collectors bombarding people about overdue bills, because this is contributing to many becoming suicidal during the cost of living crisis.
That is the call of a report published today by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, a charity chaired and founded by Martin Lewis (MoneySavingExpert), which reveals the shocking impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s mental health.
New nationally representative polling of 2,049 UK adults (1) published by the charity shows that:
- 1 in 6 UK adults (17%) say they have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings over the past nine months alone as a result of the rising cost of living. This would amount to nearly 9 million people across the country if reflected nationally.
- The research shows that contact from creditors is playing a big role in compounding distress during the cost of living crisis — with 11% of people saying that they “dread” opening the post from banks, energy companies and other creditors.
- This may in part explain why the risk of suicidal feelings increases dramatically for people who are behind on multiple bills. Staggeringly, nearly half of this group (49%) say they have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings in the past nine months due to the cost of living crisis.
- Perhaps most worryingly, 1 in 8 people (13%) who are behind on at least one payment say they have attempted to take their own life as a result of the cost of living crisis.
A separate in-depth survey by Money and Mental Health of over 200 people with lived experience of mental health problems underlines the distressing impact that receiving calls, letters and messages from creditors and debt collectors can have.
People told the charity that this barrage of messages can leave them feeling bombarded, bullied and unable to see a way out of their situation. For some people, it is contributing to them becoming suicidal.
For example, Steven, one of the ‘experts by experience’ who took part in Money and Mental Health’s survey, described how on one day last month he received seven contacts in seven hours from a single debt collection agency.
This included two text messages, two emails, a letter and two phone calls, which Steven said left him “feeling harassed and persecuted. The sheer number of contacts scares me, it’s almost as if they are threatening and bullying me into compliance. They have me at the point of not answering calls and removing my SIM so they can’t contact me. I am becoming more reclusive as a result.”
Shockingly, Money and Mental Health’s research shows that debt collectors can get away with bombarding people in this way, because there are no firm legal rules in the UK limiting how often they can contact people about overdue bills.
While guidance from the Financial Conduct Authority (which regulates financial services) states that creditors and debt collectors should not contact people in arrears ‘at unreasonable intervals’ (2), it does not stipulate how often is too much.
Nor does it instruct creditors to consider their own collections activity in the context of that from other creditors. The charity’s report argues that what might appear to constitute a reasonable level of contact from one creditor soon looks more like harassment when multiplied by the number of creditors that many people have — and that there is a risk that more will be dealing with after this difficult winter.
The UK is lagging behind other countries in this respect. For example, in the United States, creditors are only allowed to call debtors seven times in one week — which is still too often, but is a level of protection that people in the UK do not enjoy.
As part of its Stop the Debt Threats campaign — which aims to reduce the harm that intimidating debt collection practices can cause (3) — Money and Mental Health is calling on the government to charge regulators with limiting how often debt collectors can contact people.
The charity is also calling on the government to quickly update its National Suicide Prevention Strategy, and to include in that urgent measures to tackle the links between financial difficulty and suicidality. This strategy was published ten years ago, and the current version makes few references to financial difficulty as a contributing factor to people becoming suicidal.
Commenting on the research, Martin Lewis, Founder and Chair of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute charity, said:
“The link between serious financial problems and suicidal thoughts is long established. So it’s no surprise that the cost of living crisis, with bills hugely increasing, on the back of the pandemic is causing some people growing distress. Yet the scale of this distress is particularly worrying, and it leaves a serious concern about the impact on the number of people who may consider taking their own lives.”
“We know that being bombarded with letters, calls and threats of court action from debt collectors can lead people to feel hopeless, helpless and even contribute to people becoming suicidal. So the sooner there are specific protections put in place to limit how and how often debt collectors can contact people about missed payments the better – even the bastion of free markets, the USA, has tighter rules on that than we do.
“It’s been ten years since the government published its National Suicide Prevention Strategy, and a new version is due imminently. We need the government to move quickly in publishing that, and hope that within it there is a recognition that financial problems are one of the broad drivers of suicide. It then needs to ensure that it has a serious package of measures to tackle the suicide risk that the cost of living crisis is causing.”
Helen Undy, Chief Executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said:
“The cost of living crisis is already ruining lives, and it’s no exaggeration to say that without urgent action it will take lives too. Suicide rates increased in the last recession, and it’s time the government acted with urgency to learn the lessons from that.
“Every life lost to suicide is tragic and preventable. There is rarely a single cause for someone becoming suicidal, but it’s clear that the barrage of letters and calls bombarding people with debt problems is causing huge distress.
“It’s vital that the government acts quickly to stop people being deluged in this way. Acting now could genuinely save lives as the cost of living crisis deepens in the coming months.”
Please read the Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting suicide to find out how to cover suicide and self-harm safely.
To set up an interview with Martin Lewis, or for any other media enquiries, please contact Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs at Money and Mental Health, on 07595 439 638 / 07935 216 804 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to Editors
- Money and Mental Health analysis of polling conducted by YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,049 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11-14 November 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
- This quote is from the FCA’s Consumer Credit sourcebook, which sets out rules and guidance for firms issuing credit
- Money and Mental Health’s Stop the Debt Threats campaign aims to reduce the harm caused by intimidating debt collection practices cause. In 2020, we had a big campaign win when the government agreed to change decades-old rules which forced lenders to send intimidating letters to people with debt problems. Now we are calling on the government to stop people being bombarded with letters, calls and messages from debt collectors.
About the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is an independent charity set up by Martin Lewis, and committed to breaking the link between financial difficulty and mental health problems. We conduct research, develop practical policy solutions and work in partnership with both those providing services and those using them to find what really works. www.moneyandmentalhealth.org
About Martin Lewis:
Martin Lewis CBE, Money Saving Expert, is the journalist and consumer campaigner who created MoneySavingExpert.com and is now the site’s Executive Chair. Martin also founded and chairs the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute charity.
He’s regularly been named the UK’s most-googled man, Citizens Advice’s Consumer Champion of the Year, and has spearheaded major financial justice campaigns including bank charges reclaiming (over seven million template letters downloaded), PPI reclaiming (over six million), successfully taking on Facebook to reduce the number of scam ads, and ran a successful large-scale campaign to get financial education in schools – including personally funding over 300,000 textbooks. In 2020, he also set up the Coronavirus Poverty Fund, funding over £3m to 400+ UK charities.
He has his own weekly award-winning prime-time ITV programme, The Martin Lewis Money Show LIVE, as well as a range of other regular media slots.