Drowning In Debt and Despair- How One Woman Changed Her Life.
We’ve all heard the famous saying ‘Money can’t buy you happiness’ and anybody struggling with mental health challenges will agree. But what if money, or should I say lack of, can severely trigger mental health problems in the first place? Evidence now shows there is an undeniable link between these two issues. Over three million adults in the UK alone suffer with both mental health problems and financial difficulties. As personal debt rises, underfunded mental health services are put under pressure, resulting in those who are struggling being left unable to get the help they need.
Debt doesn’t only stay in the realms of a person's financial situation, it attacks every aspect of that person’s life, from physical and mental health, to relationships, home life and even performance at work. Those wrestling with debt problems share common feelings of guilt, shame, fear and in some cases suicidal thoughts and attempts. According to the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, over 420,000 people in problem debt considered taking their own life in England last year, while more than 100,000 people in debt actually attempt suicide annually. Whilst these statistics are shocking, they certainly back up the notion that people feel too ashamed to talk about their debt problems, resulting in heightened mental health problems which ultimately lead to isolation and suicidal thoughts. Here at WeAreASSIF, we are dedicated in shedding light on all areas of mental health challenges and to do so we share stories and experiences of those who have encountered such problems.
Terry Protheroe is a sixty year old NHS Peer Support Worker living in Cambridge. Ten years ago her life came crashing down around her due to crippling mental health and debt problems.
“ I moved to Cambridge to get away from an abusive relationship and managed to find myself a good job and a nice flat but that previous relationship left me with depression. It was the minute I told my boss about the depression when things started to fall apart .”
Terry asked her boss for an afternoon off to attend a doctors appointment and the minute she did, her bosses attitude took a negative shift. After that things began to go down hill for Terry and eventually she was let go from her job. At the same time her landlord decided to sell the flat she was living in and gave Terry three months notice to find a new place.
“Nobody would touch me because I was on benefits, I couldn’t scrape together the money for a deposit for a private flat, so I had to seek help from the council. When I was eventually found a flat, there was no white-goods, no fridge, no freezer, no cooker, no washing machine. There was just a microwave. I had to keep my milk on the windowsill and I lived off those little microwavable pizzas because they were cheap. They were all I could afford at the time and I’d lost all interest in food anyway.”
Terry started to develop social phobia and stopped leaving the house. Once she had paid her rent and bills she had £10 a week to live on.
“ I used to sleep during the day to avoid the phone calls I’d get off creditors I owed money to. They didn’t call during the night so that’s when I’d be awake. I also stopped leaving the house, I couldn’t afford to go out and do anything. After I was declared bankrupt, I made sure I had paid all my bills but it meant I had just £10 a week to live on, that was including toiletries and food. I stopped seeing friends. ”
Terry made frequent trips to her GP to seek help with her depression but each time she was told to go and find a job ‘it will make you feel better’ they said. By this time she had lost all of her confidence and had extremely low self esteem.
“I’d go to the doctors once a week and then crawl back to my hole. I shut everybody out, it was a very dark time.”
To make matters worse Terry’s benefits were stopped as she was deemed fit for work.
“The thing with mental health is that you can’t see it. It’s ‘invisible’, they said I was fit for work but my depression was crippling me. I couldn’t leave the house let alone go for job interviews. When my benefits were stopped I received a final payment of £14 .”
Terry saw no way out of the darkness she was feeling and it was in that utter blackness she attempted suicide. She was found and taken to A&E but was discharged the very next day with no help.
“I got home from the hospital and I remember lying on my bed, I noticed there was a candle on the bedside table next to me. I thought, if I push this candle onto the floor and let it burn, i’ll go with it, at least then that's a legitimate way to die.”
Thankfully it didn’t come to that because a friend arrived a few moments later and insisted Terry go and stay with her for a few weeks.
“My friend really helped, she encouraged me to write to our local MP Andrew Lansley asking for help.”
An excerpt from the letter Terry Wrote to MP Andrew Lansley in 2011:
“Serious debt problems and housing issues have resulted from my unemployment, which have further exacerbating my depression to such an extent that my future now looks very bleak and I can see no way out and no way forward. I feel I have become a burden to family and friends. I feel I am despised and totally written off by society.”
The letter helped Terry to receive her benefits once again, but it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with breast cancer that things started to change.
“To anyone else, getting breast cancer would be one of the worst things that could happen to a person. To me it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was treated with respect at my radiotherapy appointments. I was treated like a human being again. Not like a good for nothing benefit scrounger which is how they treated me at the DWP.”
Whilst attending regular Radiotherapy appointments Terry was introduced to a new clinical trial that was treating people for Treatment Resistant Depression. The trial lasted a year and offered 52 weeks worth of psychotherapy. The trial then helped her get access to a Recovery College where she was introduced to a Peer Support training course. The definition of a Peer Support Worker is: someone who has lived experience and who uses that lived experience to help and support others who are experiencing distress. Terry completed the course and became a voluntary Peer Support Worker. She was then hired by the same NHS trust that treated her and now works four days a week as a Peer Tutor at the Recover College.
“It has been a brutal and long process. I was declared bankrupt but I had no assets. I lived on very little benefits but being introduced to the Peer Support course changed my life. I now get out of the house four days a week, I earn a little over a thousand pounds a month and I no longer rely on benefits. I go to work and I help people who are going through the same things that I did.”
Terry is determined to speak up for those suffering with mental health and debt problems. She is currently presenting a case to the CEO at the NHS trust that she works for to persuade them to provide additional support for people with financial and mental health difficulties.
“It has taken me ten years to get my life back on track and I now want to raise awareness with my story. I am determined to break the link between financial difficulties and suicide.”
Stories like Terry’s show how issues such as debt can severely impact a person’s mental health. Terry is now rebuilding her life, but it took her ten long years to do so. In 2016, money saving expert Martin Lewis founded the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, a registered charity set up to help those struggling with mental health and debt problems. Since then more light has been shed on this area and with that, more research.
To get a better understanding of the type of research which is being currently conducted, I spoke to Dr Thomas Richardson, a clinical psychologist who is currently researching the links between mental health and debt. When asked if debt does in fact have a severe impact on mental health, Dr Richardson said:
“ It can have an impact in a lot of ways, a meta-analysis I did showed those in debt are more prone to mental health problems and depression specifically. However there is the chicken and egg question here: does debt lead to mental health problems or vice versa. Research conducted over time suggests that financial problems such as debt and worries about money can exacerbate poor mental health over time.”
To get a varied and accurate amount of research Dr Richardson spoke to different groups of people to determine how debt was impacting their life. One of these groups were students.
“My research with students has shown that struggling to pay the bills increases the risk of anxiety, eating disorder and psychotic symptoms and problem drinking over time. Being more stressed about finances also had an impact on anxiety and depression. There is some evidence that the relationship works both ways, for example in my research with students struggling financially increased eating disorder risk over time but those who were at a higher risk for eating disorders also had deteriorating finances over time. So it can unfortunately become a vicious cycle. What I found surprising from my research is that how much you can pay the bills is more important than amount of debt. Another group was those suffering with bipolar disorder, Dr Richardson’s research showed that a person’s mental health situation can impact how they view their financial situation, “My research with Bipolar Disorder has shown that those who see their financial situation as worse have greater anxiety and stress a few months later. What I find interesting as a psychologist is that the research is that there are a number of psychological factors which can explain why finances impact mental health. For example how hopeful you feel about your financial situation, how much you feel you can cope with it, how much control you feel you have over it. Some people can have £5000 debt and it doesn’t impact them, others can have £500 debt and it will really gets to them, this is because they see their debt in a different way.”
A person’s mental health situation can also have an impact on the way they spend and can possibly lead to overspending which can have a vicious circle effect on mental health. Dr Richardson said:
“We identified two key themes for overspending, the first was impulsive shopping such as buying lots online, or spending on ‘grand schemes’. In Bipolar disorder people can often get very ambitious ideas when manic such as setting up a new business, but these might be quite risk or impulsive. Thus spending might be part of a ‘big idea’. What people are spending money on might appear random and bizarre to others, but the person might be doing it for a particular goal, albeit one that is quite unrealistic. For example, I have Bipolar disorder, when I had a manic episode at age 18 I bought 6 Djembe’s (African drums) the night before I went into hospital. This might appear like a random impulse buy, but in my mind-set at the time it all tied in to an overly ambitious business idea I had: there was a goal behind the purchase. The second was an unexpected theme of ‘excessive generosity’ for example showering family with gifts you can’t really afford, or giving lots of money to charity impulsively. We think this might be fuelled by regret or guilt about previous impulsive spending and feeling a need for your family to appreciate you, so you may spend more and it becomes a vicious cycle”
Dr Richardson’s research shows that there is a clear link between debt and mental health: struggling with mental health can spark financial difficulties in the first place. Although more research is being put in place and charities like the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute are spearheading campaigns such as stop the #debtthreats, debt is still considered a ‘dirty word’ in today's society, and we have a long way to go. People are still too ashamed to seek help and people like Terry slip through the net and ultimately have to rebuild their lives alone, this should never be the case. Even just talking about your financial difficulties with a friend can ease your anxiety surrounding it. This is why here at WeAreASSIF, we felt the need to talk about this issue to bring it to light and to let you know, you are not alone. If you are going through similar problems please don’t feel too embarrassed to ask for help. Below is a list of charities that can help. You can always contact us personally via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and we can point you in the direction.
Debt should not be a taboo subject and just remember, it can always be solved.
If you are struggling with debt, please see the below links.
If you’ve been having suicidal thoughts, or you know somebody who is, these are the numbers to call to get some help.
Samaritans: 116 123
CALM: 0800 58 58 58
Papyrus (for those under 35): 0800 068 41 41
Childline (for children and young people under 19): 0800 1111
The Silver Line (for the elderly): 0800 4 70 80 90