To mark World Suicide Prevention Day, Steve Triner the Chief Executive of our partner Citizens Advice Sutton, writes about suicide and debt.
The client, a young man with multiple debts was standing on the table of the interview room of our second-floor office. The advisor, speaking calmy to him asked him to step back from the window. The client was becoming more agitated and moved closer to the open window. He started to shout, telling the advisor that if there was no way out of his humiliating situation, he would jump from the window. Another member of staff heard the shouting of the distressed client and came into the room. The advisor knew the client and spoke to him in French, his first language, telling him that no one was judging him, no one considered him a failure and we could help him.
Most debt advisors will have advised clients who talk of suicide or self-harming. Many people with debt feel trapped by their financial situation. Many people with debts will have been struggling not just financially, but emotionally, for months or even years as their situation deteriorates from arrears to final demands and maybe to court actions and bailiffs. Too many people don’t feel able to seek advice, and sometimes, that inability or reluctance to seek debt advice, can have catastrophic and tragic consequences.
The ‘Silent Killer’ report from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found that each year in England, 420,000 people in problem debt consider taking their own life and more than 100,000 people in debt actually attempt suicide. The report also found that people in problem debt are three times more likely to have considered suicide than people who are not in problem debt. The report includes excellent recommendations including a recommendation that the government update the rules governing the content and language of many creditors’ letters to make them less threatening, easier to understand, and more supportive.
However, perhaps one of the most effective measures that debt advice agencies can take to help break the link between suicide and debt, is to encourage people to seek advice. We have, from our experience of working as part of Debt Free London identified a number of barriers to people seeking debt advice - and any move to take down those barriers could literally save lives.
People are often embarrassed about seeking debt advice. We are particularly concerned that men are reluctant to seek advice – yet although men make up about 75% of suicide deaths, men are only 39% of our clients. Women are more likely than men to be in debt but are much more likely to seek advice. We run a jointly branded campaign during the pandemic, designed to encourage men – while not at all discouraging women – to seek debt advice, using the campaign slogan- ‘Debt. It's more common than you think.’ We started to work with our local authority on a project working with barbers - making barbers aware of the prevalence of debt and sources of free, confidential, independent and impartial debt advice, such as Debt Free London. We plan to restart the service and also work with bar staff to promote the availability of debt advice.
We have also encouraged people to seek debt advice, by raising awareness of debt solutions. Many people feel trapped by debt and that inability to see a way out of the situation could push people towards suicide. Very few people struggling with debt are aware of breathing space, including mental health breathing spaces. Very few people are aware of Debt Relief Orders and even fewer people were aware of the increase in the DRO eligibility limits. Many people wrongly assume that the only debt advice ‘solution’ is a negotiated reduction in payments to creditors -which will leave them struggling for years. Our debt advice promotion activity includes examples of real outcomes – such as the Care Leaver who asked us to negotiate a payment plan for council tax arrears – but the adviser, rather than set up a payment plan, actually extinguished the arrears by making a late, but successful application for the Care Leavers Council Tax exemption. The client at the beginning of this piece who was going to jump from our window, was entitled to a DRO. The adviser made a successful DRO application.