There is a clear link between problem debt and mental ill-health.
Half of adults in problem debt also have a mental health problem. That’s three million people. People with problem debt are twice as likely to develop major depression as those not in financial difficulty. 86% of respondents to a Money and Mental Health survey of nearly 5,500 people with experience of mental health problems in spring 2016 said that their financial situation had made their mental health problems worse.
That’s why I am joining the call to extend for a six-week ‘Recovery Space’ scheme to cover people in a mental health crisis, during which their creditors cannot harass them, and they have the space to sort things out. It presents a simple and workable way to fix a growing problem. I urge Ministers to look closely at this proposal. I hope we are pushing at an open door.
The issue of problem debt is familiar. I hear every week stories from desperate people in my constituency, who are getting into difficulties through no fault of their own. It might be dramatic changes in behaviour caused by clinical depression or bipolar disorder, with uncontrollable and unsupportable spending sprees. It might be small changes in family incomes or outgoings, created by external forces such as the loss of a job, precarious employment, or physical illness, which can be devastating.
Imagine being discharged from hospital to an eviction notice, or doorstepped by bailiffs when you’re unable to open your post and tackle your debts.
People with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in problem debt. Debt that makes recovery harder, and take longer. Debt that makes it harder for mental health professionals to help, and that has long-term impacts for people and their families well after the mental health crisis is over.
For many people, debt becomes a terrible burden, borne in solitude. We see the classic vicious circle. People in problem debt may become too ill to work. They hide their problem from friends and family. The problem gets worse. Then the vultures start to circle overhead. Pay day loans, advertised everywhere and easily available, with sky-high interest rates.
In the most deprived parts of our communities, we see the spectre of loan sharks: easy money with no regulation and enforced by intimidation and violence.
So for a person getting into problem debt, the only options are further debts, swiftly becoming a mountain of unsustainable, unmanageable debt. Of course this weighs heavily on the mind of the debtor. Our understanding of mental health is developing all the time. The causes and triggers of mental ill-health are complex and usually down to more than one factor. There is seldom a single reason for someone to suffer depression, anxiety, phobias, bipolar disorder, thoughts of self-harm or suicide, or other forms of mental illness.
One of the most distressing cases I have come across in my own constituency was when I was visiting a local foodbank a couple of Christmases ago and I met John. He had walked nine miles to get to the foodbank in the freezing cold, not even wearing a jumper. Recently, he had been discharged from an inpatient unit. He had no access to benefits, no money on his electricity meter, and no food in the fridge. How could he continue his recovery and maintain his wellbeing under these circumstances?
We know from countless testimonies of people in problem debt that it creates the conditions for mental health to worsen. In fact, people in financial difficulty are twice as likely to experience suicidal ideation.
Allowing people who we know are in absolute crisis to be pursued by creditors – whether it is their local council, energy companies, or bailiffs – is unacceptable and dangerous.
This is why the work of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is so important, which despite being a new kid on the block of policy think tanks, has already made a huge and significant contribution to this area of public policy. I am proud to sit on their advisory board.
No-one should be preyed upon by banks, credit card companies and legal loan sharks. No-one should suffer in silence, scared of the shame of debt and the stigma of mental illness. No child should have to pretend not to be in when the debt collectors come knocking. No one should be discharged from mental health crisis care to be faced with the bailiffs. None of us should fear the post arriving on the door mat.
The extension of the ‘Recovery Space’ initiative is an important step in alleviating the pressure on some of the most vulnerable people, and preventing worsening mental health. I urge everyone to get behind it. And to recognise there is so much more to do.
Luciana Berger MP is on the advisory board of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, and is President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health