The Devastating Effect Debt Had On My Mental Health

Photographed by Kieran Boswell
I know a little bit about being in debt. About how it keeps you up at night, making your heart race and your stomach lurch. I know that the experience of owing money you can’t afford to pay back is like being caught in the feedback loop of a twisted rollercoaster or stuck in a lift that keeps plunging up and down an elevator shaft. You want to stop the ride and get off but you can’t. 
The mental health side effects of being caught in debt creep up on you and, before you realise, they start slowly swallowing you whole. You look down at your hands and find you have unconsciously decimated your cuticles, picking them red raw as your brain races to keep up with the reality of your situation. So a recent study conducted by NatCen Social Research (Britain's leading independent social research institute) on behalf of Agenda (an alliance of organisations that advocate for women and girls) which has found that young women are being driven to self-harm as a result of poverty, debt and their struggles to pay household bills, comes as no surprise. 
Nonetheless, the findings of the study are stark. One in five women aged 16-34 with serious money problems has self-harmed in the last year. On top of this, self-harm is also three times higher among women who have fallen behind on utility bills or who have had their utilities disconnected (13%) than among those who have not (4%). 
The study also found that women aged 16-34 from low income backgrounds are five times more likely to harm themselves than those from the most well-off families. This confirms that there is a clear link between wealth and ill mental health, showing that young women who find themselves living in poverty and debt are much more likely to suffer psychologically than their peers. 

At best I was twitchy and irritable, at worst it completely paralysed me – I couldn't concentrate on anything else and would have horrifying intrusive thoughts.

Clare SEAL
Thirty-year-old Clare Seal, who is behind the once-anonymous Instagram account My Frugal Year, was in £27,000 worth of debt just over a year ago. She explains that this took a huge toll on her mental health. 
"I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, which is something I now manage, but when things were really bad financially, it got harder and harder to control," Clare tells me. "Every time a bill was due to come out, whether I had the money to cover it or not, I would experience a huge spike in anxiety. At best I was twitchy and irritable, at worst it completely paralysed me – I couldn’t concentrate on anything else and would have horrifying intrusive thoughts and sometimes even chest pains. I finally referred myself to NHS talking therapies but felt too ashamed to mention the impact of my finances on my anxiety. Since my debt has significantly reduced and I’m finally in control, things are much easier to manage."
Reinforcing the study’s findings, she explains that regular bills became a source of overwhelming stress. "It got to a point where I thought so little of myself and my ability to manage my responsibilities that putting another £50 on a credit card to cheer myself up felt insignificant – just a drop in the £27k ocean."
Now having reduced her debt to £11,481.01, Clare is aware of the extent to which her financial situation defined her emotional and mental health for a long time. "My debt was always lurking," she explains, "like a stick that I would beat myself with when I was feeling down, or waiting to burst my bubble whenever I achieved anything positive. Feelings of inadequacy and comparison were a large part of the reason I accrued so much debt in the first place, and they only got worse as my financial situation got ever more dire." 
Poverty and debt combine to form a vicious cycle which traps those affected by it. We know that young women have been financially harder hit than other demographics by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Recent data from the Fawcett Society also shows that among these women, those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are even more likely to be affected
The Fawcett Society report found that Black, Asian and women from minority ethnic backgrounds were overall most likely to believe that the pandemic would force them into debt, that they would struggle to make ends meet in the next few months, to be worried about covering housing costs and, on top of this, to be more likely than white women to report that they had recently lost support from the government.
Just two months after the publication of that report, the UK is now in the deepest recession since records began, sadly meaning that those fears are likely becoming reality because more financial hardship likely lies ahead for many. So it’s more important than ever to open up conversations about debt and how to cope with it. 
Responding to the current climate of precarity that we all find ourselves in, the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) is a government-backed body tasked with helping people make better financial decisions. They told Refinery29 that they have recently found that women are more likely not to talk (48% vs 39%) about their finances at all compared to men, with many of them citing not wanting to be judged as a reason. More than this, they have found that 51% of women feel uncomfortable about telling people they are claiming or receiving benefits due to COVID-19, compared to 23% of men. 
In an attempt to combat this and help people who find themselves particularly struggling with debt right now, MaPS is working with psychologist Honey Langcaster-James to offer people support and help them find ways to facilitate these difficult and often painful conversations. 
"A few years ago," Honey tells me, "I was in a significant amount of personal debt. At the time I didn’t connect it with a negative effect on my mental health, self-esteem or my mood but now, looking back, it’s as clear as day."
Honey says this is because we "think that our financial worth is a reflection of our personal worth, when it isn't. It's often a reflection of a complex set of circumstances." Right now, of course, it’s a reflection of global socioeconomic factors which are beyond all of our control. 

We think that our financial worth is a reflection of our personal worth, when it isn't. It's often a reflection of a complex set of circumstances.

Honey Langcaster-James
There are, Honey tells me, things you can do to mitigate the emotional and mental health impact of debt. First and foremost among these is protecting yourself and making sure you surround yourself with people who affirm you. "Choose who you are going to talk to about debt wisely," she says, "because one of the difficulties when we ourselves are worried and anxious can actually be opening up to someone close to us who, in turn, responds with more anxiety because they’re worried about us."
Sometimes, she adds, speaking to a stranger can be easier. "Turning to a reputable professional service like StepChange, Turn2Us or the Money Advice Service can mean that you’re talking to somebody who won’t be too emotionally affected by what you're telling them and react in a way that's difficult for you and makes your struggles even harder." 
She also says that the time of day you choose to discuss your financial concerns is important. "Don’t do it at night, at the end of the day when you are tired and drained," she explains. "Do it at a time when you feel strong and awake, have figures written down when you do it."
Shame and stigma are a huge part of what makes debt weigh so heavily on those affected by it, making it harder than it ought to be to open up about something which is, so often, not the individual’s fault at all but rather the consequence of not having been paid enough for a period or falling on hard times. "One of the things we learn from a young age," Honey adds, "is to be secretive about money. We learn this as children. Our parents will say 'oooh you don’t talk about money' and we’re taught not to tell people how much things cost. This is how our society embeds a message that money is something to be hidden, to be ashamed about and not to be talked about. This is only more enforced when we go to work as adults. Sometimes it will actually be in our contracts that we do not discuss what we earn and, as we know, this is a particular problem for women and, historically, one of the reasons why we have been underpaid, why there is a gender pay gap."
This pandemic has shown us just how gendered inequality is in Britain today. Women are underpaid across the board, undervalued and, on average, performing 60% more invisible but vital labour such as caring, cooking and cleaning alongside their jobs than men are. The fact that they are also being impacted financially and that their mental health is suffering as a result is something that we should all be concerned by and commit to holding the government to account on. Because when all is said and done, talking can only do so much to dispel shame and stigma; what people really need is state support that's easily accessible and actually covers their outgoings.
If the coronavirus pandemic was a public health crisis at first, it is now an economic one. And so, Honey says, "the second wave, really, is a financial one. People are worried about how this will affect their incomes and their lifestyles. This in turn is a mental health issue. We have to talk, we have to let people know that they are not alone and do away with the shame, stigma and embarrassment that comes with being in debt." 
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.

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