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People with poor mental health twice as likely to be behind on bills

5 August 2016

People with mental health problems are twice as likely to be behind on their bills, Citizens Advice reveals as part of a major new study on the wider social impacts of unmanageable debt.

The landmark new report - which looks at the link between excessive debt and social mobility -  uncovers the close relationship between poor mental health and being in arrears. It finds that people with high levels of debt are 24% more likely to experience poor mental health.

The findings in ‘A Debt Effect?’ chime with Citizens Advice’s experience of giving debt advice to more than 350,000 people a year. More than half of people with a debt issue (54%) have a problem in at least one other area, such as employment or housing, and nearly three quarters of debt clients say they felt anxious or stressed because of their debts.

It calls on the new government to ensure tackling unmanageable personal debt is at the heart of its social policy strategy.

Citizens Advice says that people with existing mental health problems can find it challenging to keep on top of bill payments, and also struggle to deal with creditors who may not have adequate systems in place to help people with poor mental health. This could include creditors sending letters with lots of small print or a tight deadline for repayment - which can frighten or intimidate vulnerable customers.

One person came to Citizens Advice for help with debts her husband developed after becoming seriously depressed following a bereavement. She was unable to access support for him and feared debts he had taken on following his illness would put the family home at risk.

Citizens Advice’s new analysis finds that those with poor mental health are 60% more likely to have been behind with their council tax in the last 12 months.  

The study finds that being behind on bills can either contribute to, or be a product of, poor mental health. For example, being in arrears can affect people’s living standards and expose them to aggressive forms of debt collection, such as bailiffs knocking on the door - which can cause anxiety, stress and lead to mental health problems.

Another woman who sought help from Citizens Advice suffered serious anxiety following letters from bailiffs demanding repayment for a parking fine debt.

The charity estimates that 4.3 million adults in the UK have unsecured debt - such as credit card bills or personal loans - equivalent to three months or more of their income. For a person with average UK earnings, this is equivalent to £6,500.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“High levels of debt and poor mental health can become a vicious cycle.

“Mounting debts can cause stress and anxiety, while those with mental health problems are at greater risk of developing debts.

“Citizens Advice helps thousands of people every year with debt issues - which often manifest into other problems in their lives - such as emotional and mental distress.

“We’ve seen good practise from a range of creditors working sensitively with vulnerable customers to collect arrears, but all creditors should be looking at their debt collection systems to make sure they are supporting people with poor mental health.”  

Evidence from Citizens Advice shows that resolving wider issues in people’s lives can help their mental health - 4 in 5 people who get advice on issues affecting their lives, feel less stressed, depressed or anxious. The charity works closely with GP surgeries across England and Wales, giving doctors an opportunity to ‘prescribe advice’ on issues, including debt, that may be affecting their patients’ health.

Notes to editors

  1. Low mental health score calculated using data from the Understanding Society survey representing approximately 40,000 households in the UK. The score was calculated via series of questions designed to measure functional health and mental wellbeing. Those with scores in the bottom 25% are represented in the report.
  2. Average earnings calculated on latest ONS earning and working hours statistics.
  3. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local Citizens Advice, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  4. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  5. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice in England and Wales, visit citizensadvice.org.uk
  6. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers.
  7. Local Citizens Advice in England and Wales advised 2.5 million clients on 6.2 million problems in 2014/15. For full service statistics see our publication Advice trends.
  8. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.