Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health

It’s time to talk about debt - and make it easier to get help

6 February 2020

Today it’s Time to Talk Day, and people across the country are using the occasion to start a conversation about mental health with their friends, colleagues and relatives.

In recent years we’ve made great strides in tackling the stigma that surrounds mental health, thanks to the Time to Change campaign and other initiatives. But if it’s getting a bit easier to talk about mental health, many people tell us that it’s still very hard to open up about being in problem debt, and to get the help they need to deal with these issues.

The taboo around being in problem debt

Part of the problem is that while thankfully we’ve largely moved past the idea that having a mental health problem is a sign of weakness, being in problem debt is still often seen as a personal failure. The common factors that can contribute to people falling into debt — such as job losses, relationship break-ups or housing issues — are often overlooked.

This can drive feelings of shame and lead to social isolation, with people keeping their debts a secret from family and friends. It can also discourage people from seeking help, and compound a sense of being trapped in debt or a burden to others. Tragically, as our report A silent killer showed, this stigma around being in debt can even contribute to people becoming suicidal.

“The debt I found myself in was something I couldn’t see a way out of and thought suicide was my best bet and the only way out. I was too embarrassed to tell friends or family about it all.”

Obstacles to debt support

It’s clear then that we need to change attitudes towards problem debt, and to make it easier for people to talk about being in financial difficulty. But another big challenge is that when people do open up about their debt problems, they often struggle to access the right support. 

That’s especially true for people with mental health problems, who are over three times more likely to be in problem debt, but who can also find it significantly more difficult to access help. 

Experiencing a mental health problem can affect your ability to concentrate, to process complex information and to plan and solve problems, as well as depleting your energy and motivation. As our Access essentials report showed, many people with mental health problems find using the telephone to contact essential services distressing, while one in six struggle to open post.

All these factors can make it extremely hard to engage with a debt adviser, collect the right information, identify an appropriate debt solution and to act on it. These challenges are made worse by the fact that demand for debt advice far outstrips supply, leading to long waiting lists for appointments or lengthy hold times on the telephone. As a result, we regularly hear from people in problem debt who have struggled to access and engage with the debt advice services available

“I have recently tried to tackle the debt we owe through approaching a couple of debt advice and debt consolidation organisations but my mind was completely overwhelmed by the task and the information they gave… I have been suicidal over the last few months and I feel that there is very little hope in my life.”

Finding solutions

We were pleased last month when the new UK Financial Wellbeing strategy from the Money and Pensions Service recognised the critical role mental health problems can play in contributing to financial difficulty, and set out plans for two million more people to be accessing debt advice by 2030.

For that to happen, there will need to be a focus on ensuring debt advice services can cope with demand. But we also need to better understand the barriers that people face in accessing and engaging with debt advice — especially those with mental health problems — and find ways to reduce these obstacles. 

Over the coming months, we’re going to be exploring this topic in more detail, and we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. If you’ve struggled to access debt advice support, have your say by joining our Research Community. 

With your help, we can make it easier for more people experiencing money and mental health problems to get the support they need to climb out of debt.


Join our Research Community here.