When the stress of debt strains mental health

Americans are in a lot of debt. As of June 2017, Americans collectively had $1.021 trillion in credit card debt. Student debt totals around $1.3 trillion. Owing all that money isn't just bad for your financial health, it can take a toll on your mental health as well.

Thomas Richardson, a clinical psychologist with the United Kingdom's National Health Service, told us he found a connection between debt and mental health while researching the effects of tuition increases in the U.K. 

“I found that what was interesting was that actually that increase in tuition fees didn’t have much of an impact on mental health,” Richardson said. “But how much you’re struggling financially and not be able to pay the bills really did.” 

Stress from debt, Richardson found, could increase the risk of eating disorders, alcoholism and anxiety.  

“So basically, you're anxious about your finances, and then you probably tend to avoid your finances more, and that just fuels the financial difficulties," Richardson said. "And same with drinking. You know, you’re worried about your finances, so you drink, and that’s not going to be particularly healthy for your bank balance. Broadly speaking about financial difficulties, about debt specifically, I did a match analysis where you pull together all the research that’s been published, and we found that people with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in kind of problem debt."

And the amount, it seems, doesn't matter. What does matter is how stressed someone feels about their ability to get out of debt and whether the expense is worth it.

“Some people will have a lot of debt, and they’ll be all right with it. Some people will have a small amount of debt, and they’ll be really stressed out about it," Richardson said. "So I think it’s about the sense that you make of it. Do you feel it’s debt for a purpose, like a mortgage? Do you feel like it’s debt you’re never going to pay off? And there’s lots of psychological factors, like how hopeless you feel about it and the future that kind of can impact it.” 

Stress can cause people to act irrationally, Richarson said, and that might mean avoiding the problem or even spending in risky or irresponsible ways to try to make money quickly. 

“You know, some people are saying stuff like, 'I just ignore those letters. I put them straight in the bin. I don’t even … look at my bank balance,'" he said. So it’s kind of a way to cope, which is self-destructive in the long run, yes, but it’s not intentionally self-destructive. … I think sometimes people use this term of financial self-harm. I’d kind of use this idea of accidental financial self-harm, 'cause often, you’re trying to cope, you’re trying to make things better, but it might just backfire.” 

If you are in debt, Richardson said there are healthier and free ways to deal with the stress.

“I think you really need to just focus on what is important to you and what gives you a sense of achievement and satisfaction that doesn’t involve money. And it can be really simple things, you know, like going for a walk in a park, stuff that’s free. You know, make sure you do that and get out. Being aware of when your mind races to the worst-case scenario."      

Richarson said he uses mindfulness — focusing on the present moment — with his clients. 

He said when you are anxious, it's easy to avoid the problem at hand.

"It’s just about one step at a time," he said. "Don’t expect yourself to be able to go speak straight to the bank manager if you’ve been avoiding it. Start small. Open one bill. Try to sort that out. Then work on to the next one, you know, so just one step at a time. It’s not going to solve everything, but just getting back a little sense of control.”

If you'd like to share your experiences with debt and stress, you can write to us at weekend@marketplace.org.

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