MSE News

Martin: '100,000 attempt debt suicide each year - stop the debt threats'

A new report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is calling on the Government to change "out-of-date" legislation which forces companies to use intimidating language when collecting debt. The charity says it is contributing to people in serious debt becoming suicidal - sign the petition for change here.

The report was launched at an event this morning attended by Minister for Mental Health Jackie Doyle-Price and Sarah McKenzie, who is head of consumer strategy and policy at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). It is based on analysis of new data from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which is commissioned by the NHS and funded by the Government. It reveals:

  • Over 420,000 people in problem debt considered taking their own life in England last year.
  • More than 100,000 people in debt actually attempt suicide each year.
  • People in problem debt are three times more likely to have considered suicide than people not in problem debt.

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, set up by MSE founder Martin Lewis, defines problem debt as falling seriously behind on payments or having utilities disconnected in the past year.

Its report highlights a number of ways in which people in this position can be put at risk of becoming suicidal – for example, if they're sent intimidating letters from a lender.

The charity is calling on the Government to update the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which sets out the rules that dictate the content and language of many creditors' letters to people in financial difficulty. It hopes to bring an end to the use of intimidating and inaccessible language and content in lenders' letters.

The FCA is currently reviewing the Consumer Credit Act, and must have completed its work by April next year. 

Martin: 'The law causes tragedy – please sign the petition for change'

Martin Lewis, founder and chair of the MMHPI and MoneySavingExpert.com, is urging people to sign the petition for change.

He said: "The fact a law set decades ago doesn't just allow companies to use intimidating language when collecting debt, but near forces them to do so, causes tragedy.

"The last thing those struggling with debts need is a bunch of near-thuggish letters dropping through the letterbox, in a language they can't understand, threatening them with court action. And with such a tight link between mental health and debt crisis, we know many of the people receiving these letters are extremely vulnerable.

"Thankfully, attitudes to mental health have come a long way in the last forty years, and it's time the legislation followed it. These letters are destroying lives, but it doesn't have to be like this.

"We're calling on the Government to change the out-of-date legislation dictating the content of these letters. In particular, new rules are needed to make the language easier to understand, and to prominently signpost people to help, not hassle. That will save lives. I do hope people will sign the petition to ensure the message is heard."

At the launch of the report this morning, Martin also urged attendees to sign the petition. You can see him speaking in the video below:

Video player requires JavaScript enabled. You can watch this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9fipeDI6nw

What is the charity's new campaign about?

The MMHPI has today launched its Stop the Debt Threats reportwhich draws on an in-depth survey of more than 200 people with personal and professional experience of issues around suicide.

It found threatening letters from lenders can be a sudden trigger that puts people at risk of becoming suicidal, and that some of the language that must be used is actually laid down in law. 

For example, the Consumer Credit Act 1974 demands that lenders' letters to people persistently struggling to make repayments on most types of credit (from overdrafts to credit and store cards, payday loans and personal loans) must include the following complex and intimidating text in full – and that this should be capitalised or put in bold: 

  • IF YOU DO NOT TAKE THE ACTION REQUIRED BY THIS NOTICE BEFORE THE DATE SHOWN THEN THE FURTHER ACTION SET OUT BELOW MAY BE TAKEN AGAINST YOU [OR A SURETY]. [A surety is someone who takes responsibility for someone else's debts or promises, and guarantees that they will be paid or undertaken.]

  • IF YOU HAVE DIFFICULTY IN PAYING ANY SUM OWING UNDER THE AGREEMENT OR TAKING ANY OTHER ACTION REQUIRED BY THIS NOTICE, YOU CAN APPLY TO THE COURT WHICH MAY MAKE AN ORDER ALLOWING YOU OR ANY SURETY MORE TIME.

  • IF YOU ARE NOT SURE WHAT TO DO, YOU SHOULD GET HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. FOR EXAMPLE YOU SHOULD CONTACT A SOLICITOR, YOUR LOCAL TRADING STANDARDS DEPARTMENT OR YOUR NEAREST CITIZENS ADVICE BUREAU. 

This text is often preceded by threats of court action at the top of letters, and embedded within longer statements featuring complex information about the individual's debt.

The MMHPI's research warns that receiving these kinds of long, incomprehensible letters – especially from multiple lenders simultaneously – is leaving many people in distress, unable to see a solution to their situation and at greater risk of becoming suicidal.

'My son was left feeling like he was backed into a corner'

Speaking at the report launch on Tuesday morning was Tracey Rogers. Tracey's son Jerome took his own life in 2016 at the age of just 20, after receiving two £65 traffic fines. In the space of just three months, that escalated into over £1,000 of debt after the council passed on his debt to bailiffs. 

Tracey said: "It wasn't just the size of Jerome's debt that was most damaging, but how he was made to feel about it by the debt collectors. The letters he received from lenders were very intimidating.

"They were also misleading, in that they encouraged him to contact the debt collectors to discuss his situation, but he was offered no support or help when he did. On top of that, Jerome was getting persistent texts and phone calls, and bailiffs came to our front door.

"That left him feeling like he was backed into the corner, which caused his mental distress to escalate quickly.

"If those letters hadn't been so frightening, and if Jerome had been able to get the right support when he needed it, he would still be here today.”

'A change in the rules could save lives'

Helen Undy, director of the MMHPI, said: "These rules on debt collection letters were meant to make sure that people know their rights and where to get help, but they're having the opposite effect. The intimidating and threatening language of these letters can leave people suicidal and unsure where to turn. A simple change in these out-of-date rules could genuinely save lives.

"But that won't fix everything, and we also want to see action taken to tackle the reasons why people are in this situation in the first place – from struggling to make ends meet, to relying on credit and borrowing from high-cost lenders who want to collect debts at any cost.

"Each life lost to suicide is tragic and preventable. By taking steps to identify and better support people in problem debt, the Government and the lenders can save more families from the utter devastation that suicide brings."

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and debt problems, see our free Mental Health & Debt guide.