Every week in the UK roughly 14,000 people receive a county court judgement (CCJ) because of money they owe. The average amount of UK household debt is around £13,000 – not including mortgages or student loans. But how often are these facts topic of conversation? How often do you see money worries discussed on social media – compared to the number of pictures of new purchases or holiday snaps?
It seems that for a huge number of people, debt is considered a ‘dirty secret’ – with many people opting to keep the extent of their financial worries from even their partner and closest loved ones. But many continue to ignore the problem and done seek debt help.
Why is this the case?
Psychologists explain that most people strive for an image that portrays them as more care free and happy than they often are, with an underlying worry that sharing ‘problems’ can lead to others considering them boring or depressing. This attitude can lead to debt problems feeling very isolating and lonely – not only do you have collection agency letters dropping through the door, but you also don’t feel you can tell anyone about it.
Recent studies suggest over 8 million people – that’s 1 in 6 UK adults, have ‘problem debt’ and almost all UK adults owe money in some capacity. Despite such large numbers of people struggling, the stereotypical image conjured up by the word ‘debt’ is often still one of a person who is irresponsible with money, disorganised or a compulsive spender.
This image is far from the truth, unforeseen life events contribute toward financial worries far more frequently than any irresponsible attitude. Is there any shame in being made redundant? Falling ill? Losing a loved one? Having mental health struggles or experiencing the breakdown of a relationship? The answer is a resounding ‘no’ – yet the debt problems that can go hand in hand with these difficulties often remain an unspoken taboo subject.
The problem with a ‘stiff upper lip’
Prince William recently spoke out about how damaging the typically British ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude can be to a person’s health – and rarely is this more apparent than in matters relating to money problems. While the phrase often paints the picture of someone who is ‘emotionally strong’ – this is very often a huge misconception, in fact, those who consider themselves ‘stiff upper lipped’ are shown to be far more likely to succumb to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The links between debt and ill-health are profound – and the tragic truth is that a deterioration of a person’s health can often lead to more and more money worries. The UK currently has more self-employed people and individuals working on zero-hour contracts than ever before. This means there is likely to be no sick-pay for someone whose money worries lead to being unable to work. For those who are employed on standard contracts, the impact can be equally huge – work performance is shown to be one of the first things impacted when a person’s mental health becomes strained.
If unaddressed the associated health issues and imagined ‘shame’ of being in debt can lead to the use of unhealthy coping strategies. Excessive drinking, drug misuse, unaffordable gambling and other risky behaviours might feel like they can offer some short-term relief, but any of these can turn a bad situation infinitely worse. The sad truth is that for many people these options look favourable when compared to discussing their issues.
So what is the answer?
The detrimental beliefs about debt that lead to it being kept a secret often start with the person finding themselves in difficulty. Being in debt does not mean you are a failure. Debt is not an indication that you should be earning more, trying harder, being more responsible or ‘grown up’. Debt can affect all, regardless of who you are, where you live or what you do. There is no model behaviour against which you are being judged.
Honesty in matters relating to debt is tremendously helpful – and often contagious. A money problem discussed with a friend will frequently end up with a two-way discussion about their similar situation – and even if they’re not experiencing the same, it’s incredibly reassuring when they don’t run a mile. Discussion with professionals helps too, the links between money worries and mental health have long been recognised by GPs – and they can access resources for you that can be very helpful. If you do feel like you’re ashamed about your money situation – for any reason at all, it’s likely that talking to a counsellor could be helpful too – your GP will be able to refer you and all counselling services operate with the strictest confidentiality, so can be a good place to help you talk through the issues safely.
Honesty is important
Ignoring debt can be extremely damaging in vast number of ways, so talking to the companies you owe money to is essential when it comes to preserving your well-being. Honesty in these scenarios is vitally important. A sense of pride might make you inclined to play down the magnitude of your debt and associated problems to the collection agencies or companies that are chasing you – but this rarely leads to a positive outcome. Trying to work beyond that pride means you’re likely to be more realistic with any arrangements you make – and virtually all companies will consider your health when trying to find a solution.
While the stereotypes and taboos around debt aren’t going to change overnight, conversations can. The companies you owe money to do not consider you irresponsible or reckless. The medical professionals you talk to expect money problems to occur and they expect those problems to impact on your mental and physical health. There are charities and organisations created solely to help you find your way back to being able to cope. The world is far more equipped to help you with money problems than you might expect.
Debt is not a dirty secret, it’s a problem that almost everyone will encounter at some point in their life and an issue in which you do have some power to begin steps toward fixing.