This Mental Health Awareness Week (15–21 May 2023), we wanted to shine a spotlight on the relationship between debt and mental health. After 27 years providing free debt advice and support in local communities, we have absolutely no doubt the two are deeply connected.
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is anxiety, and having surveyed 3,000 people on the topic of stress, anxiety and hopelessness over personal finances at the back end of 2022, the Mental Health Foundation found that 34% of people were feeling anxious about their finances, with a quarter of people felt so anxious that it was stopping them from doing the things they wanted to do.
If that’s you, and you’re finding yourself feeling anxious about your finances, I’d encourage you to read on.
The relationship between debt and mental health
Mental ill-health is extremely common. In fact, around 1 in 4 adults in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year. Of course, having a mental health condition doesn’t automatically mean you’re bad with money, but it can make things more difficult to manage when you’ve already got other things going on.
It’s not as simple as saying that mental ill-health means you will get into debt, or that it’s the cause of any debt you may have. However, with over half of those we helped last year alone having a pre-existing mental health condition (55%)*, there’s no denying that it does play a role in perhaps making people more vulnerable to falling into debt.
On the flip side, of course, is the idea that debt impacts mental health. Debt is still stigmatised and may bring up feelings of hopelessness, fear or shame. Many of those we help find themselves lonely and isolated, due to lack of finances but also the emotions they’re feeling or the impact that debt has had on their mental health. In our latest client survey, 4 in 5 CAP clients (81%) said debt had affected their mental health*. There’s no denying it – the two are intrinsically linked.
Perhaps most concerning is that 50% of CAP clients had considered or attempted suicide as a way out of debt before reaching out to us for help*. Debt is costing people their lives, and something has to change. That’s why it’s non-negotiable that the right support should be available for whoever needs it.
What to do if you’re feeling anxious about your finances
Below are some practical tips to help you begin to take back control of your financial situation, cope with anxiety, and reach out for the support you need.
Confide in someone you trust
As a general rule, talking about what’s bothering you can help you process and get your head around it. If you’re feeling anxious about your finances, why not talk to a trusted friend or family member about what’s going on? By voicing your worries out loud, you might find it easier to figure out your next steps. Those you tell might have some ideas or solutions, too. Or even hearing that they’re also being extra careful with their money at the moment might bring some reassurance that you’re not alone.
Make use of free listening services
If you’d rather talk to someone impartial or someone you don’t know about the anxiety you’re experiencing, there are listening services available across the UK that are there to do just that: listen. Why not call the Samaritans (116 123, 24 hours a day), or you can email them at [email protected], or even visit a local branch in person. If you prefer text, you can access support from Shout’s 24/7 messaging service, by texting SHOUT to 85258 (it’s free from all major mobile networks in the UK).
Please note: these services do not give out financial advice. Instead, they’re there to offer a listening ear and emotional support.
Ask for mental health support
If you’re feeling anxious, stressed, low or overwhelmed, the first step is to speak to your GP about it. They may offer medication, or refer you to your local mental health services for some extra support, such as counselling. There will also be crisis services available in your area, so it’s worth asking your GP for their contact details in case you need them.
Please note: if you’re currently feeling suicidal or are at risk of harming yourself, please seek help urgently, by calling 999, going to A&E or calling your local crisis team or your local urgent mental health helpline.
It can take time to get the right support for you, but it’s important that you don’t continue to struggle alone, without seeking the help you deserve.
For a longer list of organisations that offer support for a whole variety of issues you may be facing, see our ‘I’m struggling — Where can I get support?’ page.
Get free debt help
If you’re in debt, don’t let things get any worse. There are a number of organisations that offer free, professional debt help and advice.
Here at CAP, we offer face-to-face support in your local area. We offer practical and emotional support as well as walking you through every step you need to take to become debt free.
Find your local CAP Debt Help
See if you’re entitled to benefits
Worry, as debilitating as it can be, is trying to serve a purpose by preparing for every problem in advance, as well as seeking solutions. It might well seem like you’ve gone over every option and there’s nothing you can do.
However, it’s worth considering if there’s any extra income you’re entitled to that you didn’t know about. You can check this using our benefits calculator.
Get your creditors to be more considerate
If debt is taking its toll on your mental health, you may be able to get creditors to be more considerate when corresponding with you. For example, you may be able to send them a ‘debt and mental health evidence form’ (DMHEF), completed by a social care worker or health worker, such as a GP. (Please note: there may be a charge associated with this).
As some people with mental health conditions are covered by the Equality Act 2010, there may be some reasonable adjustments creditors have to make, such as putting collection activity on hold temporarily, or only contacting you at certain times or in specific ways (e.g. by letter only).
Try breathing exercises
Of course, breathing exercises won’t solve all your problems, but when we’re experiencing stress or anxiety, our bodies enter ‘fight or flight’ mode. This speeds up our heart rate and breathing, pumping blood around your body as fast as possible in preparation to either fight the danger, or run.
However, we are not designed to stay in this state. When worry continues over a long time, it can be exhausting (as well as causing other health issues). Breathing exercises are a simple way to bring your body back into a state of calm and let your brain know that you are safe. Training your nervous system to relax through breathing exercises is an effective way (with practice!) to ease anxiety and worry. It actually helps your brain be able to focus, problem solve and see the bigger picture again, which it’s physically impossible to do when anxious.
If you’re able to, movement is a key way to release stress and anxiety from your body. It could be something intense like a run or bike ride, but gentle movement is also effective, such as stretching or a gentle walk.
Regular movement can help ease anxiety by releasing endorphins (chemicals that make you feel happy!) as well as relaxing the tension in your body and numerous other health benefits such as better ability to cope with stress. Whether you’re up for running 5k or trying out some adaptive exercises or stretches from your own home, why not see if you can incorporate some movement into your schedule this Mental Health Awareness Week?
Write it down
Writing is a great way to release any ‘stuck’ feelings and thoughts. It might help you process, find clarity or recognise the emotions you’re feeling.
You could write a journal at a set time each day, giving yourself a designated time to process and problem solve without it becoming all-consuming. If you’re unsure what to write, just start. It doesn’t have to make sense and the goal it just to get out what’s going on inside.
If you struggle to sleep because you’re feeling anxious about your finances, it might help to keep a notebook and pen by your bed at night. That way, you can write down any worries or tasks that need doing as soon as they pop into your head, then sleep knowing they won’t be forgotten.
Get enough sleep
Talking of sleep, when you’re feeling anxious about your finances, sleep can be hard to come by. Maybe it takes you a long time to get to sleep, or you wake up lots of times throughout the night. Although stress is connected to poor sleep, there are some things you can do to encourage better sleep (both how much you get and how restful it is).
One thing you can do is stick to an evening routine, that you carry out at the same time every night. Over time, your body and brain will learn this is a signal to start winding down, producing melatonin which promotes good sleep.
Include things in your evening routine that are relaxing, such as a bath, reading a book, or listening to some calming music. Dim the lights and avoid screens an hour before bed, and avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can stop you from falling asleep and prevent deep sleep.
Things like getting your worries down on paper, and making sure you incorporate movement into your day, can help with getting a good night’s sleep, too. The key is implementing lots of small things that are known to improve both the amount, and the quality, of sleep that you’re getting.
Drink plenty of water
It’s common knowledge that we all need around 2 litres of water a day, but have you ever actually wondered why? Water actually has calming properties, and drinking enough water actually produces a calming effect.
There’s a strong link between stress and dehydration (they both cause each other), so it’s vital that you drink enough every day, in order to keep your anxiety at bay. Set those alarms to remind yourself to get a drink, or grab a bottle to carry around with you. Don’t make your body carry unnecessary extra stress on top of that which you’re already feeling.
Fuel your body well
Nutrition also plays a role in managing anxiety. It’s not about having the perfect diet or balance of nutrients at all times. However, there are some things you may want to consider, that will help you fuel your body well.
To maintain blood sugar levels and promote calmness throughout the day, opt for more complex carbohydrates. These are found in fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
Magnesium-rich foods, like leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, also help reduce anxiety. Foods rich in zinc have a similar effect, from cashew nuts to beef to egg yolks. B vitamins also play a role, and are found in avocados and almonds. Eating foods rich in certain nutrients encourages your body to release happy chemicals such as serotonin.
It’s not about finding a perfect diet that will cure all your worries. But by putting a good amount of certain nutrients in your body, you’re giving yourself fuel to stay as relaxed and calm as possible.
Pick one thing to take action on this Mental Health Awareness Week
Whether you’ve resonated with one thing or many throughout this blog, why not pick one thing to take action on today? Maybe it’s drinking more water, getting outside more, or reaching out to a friend or professional for support. Whatever you choose this Mental Health Awareness Week, I pray it helps you feel less anxious about your finances, and becomes a key step in improving your overall mental health.
*Stats taken from CAP’s 2023 client report: Taking on UK poverty.