Asking For A Friend: How can I deal with the emotional cost of debt?

Asking For A Friend is the series where we answer the questions that you’ve always wanted to ask.

Today, we’re talking about debt.

In the year from January 2021, the average amount of personal debt owed in the UK had risen by £1,176.40 per household. 

Now, fuel poverty is rife, food bank usage is rising and the cost of living is sky-rocketing

Unsurprisingly, this is having a serious impact on people’s mental health. 

Statistics from the charity Mental Health Concern show that a third of people who have been referred to its Together In A Crisis service in 2022 were for general finance advice, with 14% of those concerned about debt. The figures for the past 12 months are similar.

Additionally, leading debt charity StepChange noted that 39% of all new clients from 2021 had a mental health condition.

‘Mental health issues can be both a cause and a consequence of problem debt,’ Sue Anderson, head of media at StepChange, told Metro.co.uk.

‘Being in debt can have a serious impact on someone’s life beyond the financial implications, and can increase their risk of experiencing issues such as stress, anxiety or depression.’

At the same time, she adds, ‘people experiencing mental health problems may find it more difficult to manage their financial affairs.’

Why does debt take such a toll on your mental health?

The problem with being in debt is that it’s taboo, so people don’t feel encouraged to open up about it.

‘When debt gets too great, people often feel a sense of guilt and shame and therefore keep it in the dark,’ mortgage broker and therapist Gemma Bennett tells us. 

‘Guilt and shame are some of the hardest emotions to process, creating so much resistance and stress in our bodies.’

Another reason why debt puts a strain on people’s mental health is that it threatens our basic needs.

‘Ultimately, food and shelter are basic human needs, so when a person feels like they are going to struggle to make ends meet, it can feel like a real threat to their survival,’ says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. 

How to deal with the emotional cost of debt

Take ownership 

When we become overwhelmed, ignoring a problem always feels easier than facing it head on.

But, Gemma says, ‘denying the situation or keeping it in the dark just exacerbates the shadow feelings and assumption you’re out of control.’

She says that it’s important to get very clear on the exact figures and ‘bring it into the light’.

‘Swallow the truth, be brave and know what you’re working with,’ she adds.

It’s also a good idea to speak to your loved ones. 

‘Be open and talk about it with the people closest to you,’ says Dr Elena. ‘Perhaps they can be a sounding board for problem solving too.’

Forgive yourself

It’s important to forgive yourself – this happens, and you aren’t the only person struggling, even if it feels like it.

‘Beating yourself up emotionally for it isn’t going to help, only learning your lessons and moving forward by taking control will help,’ says Gemma. 

‘Quickly recognise that the choices you made to get there are now new choices and forgive your ever evolving self.’

Make a plan

Putting a plan in place is vital for you to take back control of your situation. 

‘This will likely require a long-term disciplined plan of a monthly budget to pay down the debt and no more spending,’ says Gemma.

 ‘As unglamorous as that may seem, the sense of empowerment and proactiveness is actually hugely rewarding.’

You can get help with this by contacting a debt charity like StepChange, who are able to help you work through any financial worries.

However, Dr Elena stresses, it’s important to take things one day at a time.

‘Don’t try to predict the future or consider the most negative outcome,’ she says. ‘Put your focus on what you can control now.’

Some free debt advice services that you can access if you’re struggling

StepChange Debt Charity: have a team of debt experts helping thousands of people every week to deal with their debt problems, and get their lives back on track.

Pay Plan: offer free debt help and advice, with solutions including free Debt Management Plans.

Citizen’s Advice Bureau: can help work out how much money you owe and which debts you should pay back first.

Ask for help

Finally, If you’re struggling with your mental health, reach out. 

‘The sooner you get the right support, the better your chances of making a speedy recovery,’ says Dr Elena.

While therapy can be inaccessible, there are charities such as Mental Health Concern and Mind who can help.

You can also try to access digital therapy through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service.

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