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The Credit Services Association (CSA)
Blog: Tackling the ‘double stigma’ of debt and mental health
Polly Mackenzie is Director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute and will be on the vulnerability and mental health panel at the Credit Services Association’s UK Credit & Collections Conference on 15 September 2016.
It’s well known that there’s a stigma surrounding mental health problems. A huge amount of work has been done to challenge this stigma like the Time to Change initiative run by Mind and Rethink, and efforts by Princes William and Harry through their Headspace campaign. But I think most of us acknowledge that there’s still a lot more work to do. Considering that one in four of us will experience a mental health condition every year, we need to get more comfortable discussing these conditions, and being open about the ups and downs of our emotional lives.
The stigma of debt
However, I believe it’s time to start another conversation, too: a conversation about the stigma of debt and financial difficulty.
The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute recently ran a huge survey of more than 5,000 people with mental health problems. We discovered that as many people were ashamed to tell their GP about their financial problems as were ashamed to tell their creditors about their mental health problems. That has really serious consequences. The credit services industry knows that it’s much easier to help vulnerable consumers if they tell you about the extra help or support they need. Imagine what it’s like for a doctor trying to help people navigate a mental health problem if you aren’t getting the full picture of what’s behind their stress and anxiety?
At the upcoming UK Credit & Collections Conference (#ukccc), I’ll be able to share further insights from that survey into why people do or do not talk about their problems with creditors and health providers - and what happens when they do.
I’ll also make the case that we need to challenge the assumptions embedded in so much culture and reporting about who the customers in financial difficulty really are. We all know that most people get into unmanageable financial problems because of a big life event: it might be a redundancy, a bereavement, a relationship breakdown. It might be the onset of a health problem, either mental or physical, that makes it impossible to work or pushes up the costs of daily life.
Offering help isn’t enough
Tackling debt stigma could have real value in encouraging more people to come forward for help before their problems get out of hand. We all know that often, when financial services companies do ‘pre-arrears’ work, with customers who might be at risk of difficulties, they often face complaints or get stonewalled. Instead of blaming those customers for turning away help that is on offer, we need to understand the emotions that are driving their behaviour: the fear, the shame, and the stigma of accepting you might be in trouble.
Changing perceptions of debt
To tackle mental health stigma, charities make a huge effort to explain that these conditions can happen to anyone - you, your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours. To challenge debt stigma, we need to do the same: explain that you don’t need to be a reckless spendaholic to get into debt. If we can build an understanding of the financial risks we all face from the life events that might occur, we may also be able to encourage people to take action to mitigate against those risks like start to save and ensure they have adequate insurance.
Finally: if people didn’t feel so ashamed about their financial difficulties, perhaps being in debt wouldn’t trigger or worsen so many mental health problems. Tackling this double stigma would be a win for everyone.
Find out more about Polly and the other speakers on the UK Credit & Collections Conference website.