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Social Justice

Martin Lewis calls for action on debt collectors as stark attempted suicide figures revealed

Victims told researchers they felt “harassed and persecuted” by debt collectors

Martin Lewis wants the government to ban debt collectors from hounding households after research found one in eight people behind on their bills have attempted suicide during the cost of living crisis.

The report by the Money and Mental Health Institute, which was founded by Lewis, shows debt collectors are barraging people with letters and calls, causing significant impact on their mental health and leading to suicidal thoughts among some. 

One in six adults (17 per cent) said they had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings over the past nine months as a result of the rising cost of living.

Staggeringly, nearly half of people who are behind on multiple bills (49 per cent) said they have thought about taking their own lives in the same period and one in eight (13 per cent) of people behind on at least one bill say they had attempted to do so as a result of the cost of living crisis.

Victims described “feeling harassed and persecuted”. One told researchers: “The sheer number of contacts scares me, it’s almost as if they are threatening and bullying me into compliance. They have me at the point of not answering calls and removing my SIM so they can’t contact me. I am becoming more reclusive as a result.”

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.

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The research shows that contact from creditors is causing distress, with 11 per cent of people saying that they “dread” opening post from banks, energy companies and other creditors.

The charity argues that many people living in debt will have multiple creditors – so what might seem like a reasonable amount of contact from one debt collector could quickly become overwhelming and feel like harassment when multiple are involved. 

Lewis said: “We know that being bombarded with letters, calls and threats of court action from debt collectors can lead people to feel hopeless, helpless and even contribute to people becoming suicidal. 

“So the sooner there are specific protections put in place to limit how and how often debt collectors can contact people about missed payments the better – even the bastion of free markets, the US, has tighter rules on that than we do.”

In the US, creditors are only allowed to call debtors seven times in one week. That is “still too often”, the charity warns, but it is a level of protection not offered to people in the UK. 

As part of its Stop the Debts campaign, the charity is also calling on the government to update its National Suicide Prevention Strategy, which was published 10 years ago. The current version makes few references to financial difficulty as a contributing factor to people becoming suicidal.

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“A new version is due imminently,” Lewis said. “We need the government to move quickly in publishing that, and hope that within it there is a recognition that financial problems are one of the broad drivers of suicide. It then needs to ensure that it has a serious package of measures to tackle the suicide risk that the cost of living crisis is causing.”

Helen Undy, chief executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, added: “The cost of living crisis is already ruining lives, and it’s no exaggeration to say that without urgent action it will take lives too. Suicide rates increased in the last recession, and it’s time the government acted with urgency to learn the lessons from that.

“It’s vital that the government acts quickly to stop people being deluged in this way. Acting now could genuinely save lives as the cost of living crisis deepens in the coming months.”

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Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping during this difficult time.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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