Stephen says it is so important not to “bury your head in the sand”. Image: Christians Against Poverty
An accident at work. Two strokes. A car crash. So much was going wrong in Stephen’s life that he was forced to give up work and was plunged into debt with little way out. He turned to loan sharks, which only created more debt. The bailiffs were banging on his door. His mental health was spiralling.
“You can’t sleep,” the 51-year-old says. “You feel sick. You’re waiting all the time. You feel like there’s nowhere to turn. It’s just getting worse no matter what you do. You sell off your possessions. It just steamrolls out of control.”
Money issues and poor mental health are so often entwined. One in four people who cannot afford their energy bills face symptoms of depression, according to government statistics.
And nearly half (49 per cent) of people behind on multiple bills have thought about taking their own lives, devastating research from the Money and Mental Health Institute has found.
There are no laws in the UK limiting how often debt collectors can contact people about overdue bills, and the institute revealed people are being barraged with letters and calls.
“You think you can get round it and you’ll pay it back,” Stephen says. “And the next thing you’re borrowing off loan sharks and your credit’s no good. Before you know where you are, you’ve got the bailiffs banging on the door. Everybody’s after you.”
According to the Vulnerability Registration Service, 1.2 million people turned to loan sharks in the 12 months up to September 2022. These are illegal money lenders who charge very high rates of interest and give very little paperwork to confirm the arrangements.
Helen Lord, chief executive of the service, says when vulnerable people are being chased for payments “they panic and see loan sharks as their only way out, only to find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt and extreme misery”.
This Thursday marks the annual charity Time to Talk Day, when people are encouraged to discuss their mental health.
Stephen, who is based in Wigan, says: “It was stress. You were paying the loan sharks back before paying your other bills so your mental health suffers. I managed to get some money from my car crash so I paid my loan sharks off first. And then I was back at square one.”
Stephen has two bulging discs which cause him pain all day. He was a site investigator for 26 years until his first accident, and then he bought himself a taxi and became self-employed. He carried on for a while, even after a car crash, but then the pandemic hit and he had no income.
Stephen had a partner at the time, and they have a little girl. He felt like he had to provide for them, but he did not know how as he battled his debt and mental illness.
“Men in general feel like they’re supposed to suck it up,” he says. “They hide stuff from their families. They think they have to be the provider. You know you’re a bit skint, but sometimes you don’t know how much trouble you’re really in. It can break families. It is really important for people to talk.”
Stephen turned to the charity Christians Against Poverty for help, after it was recommended by a friend who it had helped through similarly tough times. The charity got in touch with his creditors, made an offer and took Stephen down the road of bankruptcy. All his debts were cleared. Seeking help, finally, changed his life.
Joe Beardsall, from Christians Against Poverty, says: “Imagine being in serious unmanageable debt during this cost of living crisis. You are receiving constant phone calls, letters and knocks at the door from people demanding money from you.
“This often leads to people feeling scared, wanting to lock themselves away, and leave the house as little as possible. We are seeing many situations of debt being linked to loneliness and isolation.”
The charity offers debt help, emergency support such as energy top ups or food and free money management courses. But charities themselves are struggling to stay afloat in the cost of living crisis. “It has impacted our finances as a charity at a time when we are needed the most,” Beardsall says.
Stephen says he is a “million times better”, but with costs so high he worries about falling back into that same situation. He is now receiving personal independence payments on top of universal credit, but only after a battle with the Department for Work and Pensions.
The government has offered targeted cost of living payments, support with energy bills and has promised to increase benefits in line with inflation. But Stephen worries it is not enough.
“People are dying,” he says. “They are freezing to death. We need more support. There’s people with nothing on the meter who don’t know when they’re getting paid. Everybody’s cutting back. Everybody’s wrapping up in hot water bottles. We can’t be losing lives over this but we most likely are.”
Stephen fears many will now be stuck in that vicious cycle. “Don’t stick your head in the sand,” he says. “Don’t leave it until it’s burying you. Don’t leave it till your mental health deteriorates and you’re hiding. Don’t leave it right until the end. Get help.”
Get help if you are struggling. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping during this difficult time.