Social Justice

Man left 'suicidal' and sacrificing food after being 'harassed' by debt collectors

Around 2.5 million people feel “harassed” by the calls, texts and messages they receive from debt collectors. One man shares his story

rob

Rob, who is 58 and from Kent, shares his story. Image: Supplied

Rob feels like he is both “driving and being crushed under rocks” when the debt collectors start to call, the letters arrive and the emails fill his inbox. He goes into a state of panic. His anxiety skyrockets.

“If you are anxious or depressed,” Rob says, “the feeling of being put upon makes you become more anxious and depressed and you probably won’t move.” 

The communication from creditors has driven him to suicidal feelings, after decades of struggle with his mental health. His vulnerability and the risk it might pose seems to be ignored when companies try to claw their money back.

And he is far from alone. Around half of people facing debt in the cost of living crisis have had suicidal thoughts in the last 20 months, stark research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has revealed.

The charity founded by Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis has found that 2.5 million people feel “harassed” by the calls, texts and messages they receive from creditors.

Martin Lewis said: “Some people are being swamped with phone calls, texts and letters from multiple creditors a day – that leaves them feeling overwhelmed and harassed, feeling unable to ever escape the situation.

“The concern is heightened due to the cost of living crisis, a time when half of people who are behind on bills say they have felt suicidal too. Our message to the government and regulators is simple. We need urgent action to prevent creating more unnecessary distress for people who are already under massive strain.”

Rob, who is 58 and based in Kent, understands this strain, having faced years of trauma, addiction and poverty. “I’ve had episodes of bad mental health throughout my life,” he says. “My first attempted suicide was in my teens. I then had a brain haemorrhage, which made things worse. I was a drug addict for over 10 years. 

“Then in my late 40s, my husband and I started a divorce that was exceptionally bad. It left me homeless, penniless and family-less.”

He has been hospitalised five times in the last five years. He was bounced between temporary accommodation and shelters, before he got a housing association flat six years ago and got himself into therapy. His life started turning round.

But money continues to be a struggle. “I don’t tend to plan finances well, so when I don’t have money, I don’t eat,” Rob says. “And when I do have money, I tend to be very generous with my money. It’s in no way a healthy thing.”

Rob has had periods of ‘manic spending’, running up store cards, credit cards, and overdrafts. The spending and subsequent debt can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression and feeling trapped.

“It feels like I’m trying to find the thing I’m missing,” he says. “Can you imagine that there’s a hole that you’re aware needs to be filled before you can move forward? Or you’re standing on the edge of a cliff and you need a bridge to get across to the other side? It feels like if I buy something, it’s going to help.”

Rob receives the benefits personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA), and he was doing a lot better at managing his finances. But the cost of living crisis has decimated the money he had saved.

Benefits were increased by just 3.1% in April 2022, when inflation had reached triple that figure. Rob’s electricity and gas bills went up by four times. 

He had £600 in his savings account before the cost of living crisis started, and now he has just £1.48 in there. He has a debt on his credit card because he needed to pay for the essentials he needed to survive. 

“I’ve become a diabetic,” Rob says. “When I’m stressed I don’t eat properly, so I would starve myself or binge, and you also end up buying cheaper foods and stuff that will just fill you up, so you tend to eat a lot more bread or carbohydrates.”


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One in 10 adults in the UK are currently behind on consumer credit payments as the pressures of the cost of living crisis drive more people into debt, according to the charity. This represents 5.2 million people – an increase of 1.5 million since November 2022.

A quarter (24%) of people are contacted by their creditors every one to two days, while some people said they were receiving several letters, emails or calls each day.

Rob had a successful career before his mental health meant he could no longer work. He was the head of databases for a gaming company, and then he retrained and did a master’s degree before heading up the coaching division of a consulting firm. “How the mighty have fallen,” he says quietly. 

“It felt horrendous,” he remarks as he speaks about having to leave work behind. “A sense of failure. A sense of a wasted life, and the feeling that you are never going to be good enough to get out of this hole.

“There’s isolation, because you withdraw from all those things that you do. I used to have quite a wide circle of acquaintances and a close knit group of friends. Now if I see three different people in a month, it’s a lot.”

The ceaseless contact from debt collectors is making his mental health worse. “One of the easiest things that could happen is single channel communication,” Rob says. “You know when you sign up for something and they ask if you want emails, calls or texts? Do that with debt.” 

He finds it especially difficult to fill out forms when he gets stressed and needs someone to help him. Rob believes call centre staff should be trained in mental health first aid, because they are often the first point of contact for people who are struggling with money.

Money and Mental Health is calling for limits on how often creditors can contact people about missed payments. It also wants a system to identify when someone is behind on multiple payments, so lenders can see when someone is likely to be receiving a high level of contact already.

There are no laws in the UK limiting how often debt collectors can contact people about overdue bills. Although the Financial Conduct Authority states they should not contact people “at unreasonable intervals”, it does not clarify how often is too much.

The UK is lagging behind other countries such as the United States, where creditors are only allowed to call debtors seven times in one week. The charity argues this is still too often, but provides a level of protection that people in the UK do not have.

Rob believes that change is possible – and even just the simplest of changes could save lives. “It’s really easy when we have these conversations to feel hopeless,” Rob says. “I think one of the things the last few years have taught me is that it may be difficult, but it’s not hopeless.”

Where to get help if you are struggling with debt and mental health

Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping if you are struggling with your mental health.

StepChange provides confidential and free expert advice on debt, as well as tips on budgeting, financial advice, and ways to prioritise your debts. 

Money Advice Trust operates a confidential national debtline which is available over the phone or via webchat.

Mental Health & Money Advice provides practical tips to lessen the strain of the financial crisis and maintain your mental wellbeing. 

Citizens Advice provides help to deal with problem debt, to avoid losing your home and to get back on top of your finances. 

MoneyHelper offers guidance to help you through the often-stressful situation of talking to a creditor about money you owe them, how to navigate credit and Buy Now Pay Later agreements, and other money concerns.

Find out more about getting help for debt here and for coping with mental health in the cost of living crisis here.

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