Research: Debt can ravage mental health

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When we think about mental health, debt doesn’t typically come to mind.

Perhaps it should.

According to research published by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, people with high debt-to-asset ratios are twice as likely to have higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. While suicide is not a common response to unmanageable debt, about half of those who die this way did not have a history of mental illness or depression. Almost 30 percent of suicides are in response to a crisis within the prior two weeks, and 16 percent were in response to a financial problem.

The burden of debt weighs heavily — and not just during the Mental Health Awareness Month of May.

This is a rising concern among young adults, who already have higher rates of anxiety and depression than previous generations. When looking at adults with that skyrocketing student debt, those with more debt report feeling more tense and anxious, report more physical problems, and get less sleep than students with low or no debt.

A 2010 meta-analysis (including more than 60 studies and reports) confirmed this strong relationship between debt and health, finding links between debt and thoughts of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, and other poor health issues. The NIH found that people with high debt (or who see themselves as having high debt) have higher average blood pressure — which also means higher risks of stroke. A 2008 Associated Press health poll reaching 10 million to 16 million people found those who self-reported high debt stress also had ulcers and similar digestive health problems (27 percent) and migraines (44 percent), as compared to 8 percent and 15 percent, respectively, who had those problems with low debt stress.

Another factor in the link between mental health and debt is contract workers, such as yours truly. Technology and the desire for family-friendly and flexible schedules have led to more workers working from home or working on a freelance or contract basis — a benefit to employers who can skip the extra costs of benefits. The downside is erratic income, and the higher potential for debt to make ends meet, so it’s no surprise that higher income volatility is associated with more depression and debt.

While the impact of debt on financial stability is obvious, its growing impact — with growing national and student debt, rising housing costs, and consumer debt — on mental health is often overlooked.

If you think you’re immune or that big (non-housing) debt only happens to irresponsible people, think again. Medical bills and sudden unemployment are among the most common triggers for debt stress. Those can happen to anyone.

Beyond frugal budgets and careful spending habits, if you find yourself with debt stress, there are free local and nonprofit credit counseling options — look for one with an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist with the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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