It’s impossible to ignore how widespread debt is in the United States. American consumers have amassed more than $14.1 trillion in debt — ranging from credit cards to personal loans to home mortgages and more, according to Experian.
The burden of student loan debt alone is outpacing both credit card debt and home equity debt in the U.S., sitting at a horrifying $1.4 trillion, according to the Department of Education. But consumer debt is still the clear front-runner.
With outstanding loans informing the economic reality of so many families, and with so many individuals facing amounts that seem impossible to pay off, it’s not surprising that our debt problem has, in turn, manufactured a mental health problem.
There is a direct link between indebtedness and psychological well-being, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In a personal capacity, I myself never made the direct link between depression and debt until quite recently. I guess I was just unwilling to wrap my mind around the idea that someone would commit suicide over debt. But after a series of events two years ago, I could no longer lie to myself. One of my coworkers took his own life because of debt.
As an office community, we were devastated. We couldn’t figure out what led him to this decision to commit suicide.
But as we packed up his belongings, we found a wad of “final notice” letters from an electrical company. The total cost was nearly $3,000. We also found a printout of the Blue Book value of his newly purchased BMW. The car, we discovered, had been traded in for a Honda before he died.
Suicide Over Debt: When Finances Become Personal
Finally, we found a sticky note. He’d scrawled the book title The Number, a few calculations, and a seven-figure number circled.
After a quick search on Amazon, we learned that the full title of that book was The Number: What Do You Need for the Rest of Your Life and What Will It Cost? And while we can’t confirm it, we figured that the mysterious seven-figure number was the amount of money that our dear coworker needed in order to retire. A number that, one might guess, he didn’t have — or ever anticipate earning.
The fact that he committed suicide over debt hit me hard as a coworker, but especially as a personal finance writer. The personal finance writing world has an unspoken air of derision for the millions of Americans who chronically live above their means.
Whether intentionally or not, we look down on those who carry heavy balances. We shake our heads when they go off-budget.
We tsk-tsk when they find themselves past due on bills. And we scoff when they buy more house than they can afford. In so many words, we shame them. We shame individuals, families, and communities for not exercising more self-control.
So while I mourned the loss of my office buddy, I grappled with a heavy sense of guilt and partial responsibility as a member of the personal finance media community — an industry that needs to offer as much advice on how to manage the emotions related to debt as we do on other matters.
So what do you do when you find yourself dealing with debt-related depression? Here are a few things you need to remember if you’re contemplating suicide over debt.
1. Help Is Close By
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. Debtors Anonymous meetings give attendees the hope, support, and skills needed to manage their debt.
You can also reach out confidentially at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, if you need free, immediate help.
In addition, you can find discounted or free mental health services through resources provided by the National Institute of Mental Health. Its compilation of national agencies and organizations can be helpful in finding treatment that is tailored to your specific mental health needs.
2. Your Debt Is Not a Reflection of Your Worthiness
Many people in the world of personal finance make it very clear that all debt is bad debt, with very few exceptions.
However, your debt is not you. And you are not your debt. In other words, you are not bad because you have debt.
Debt is a function of the decisions that you’ve made around spending and saving. And those, in turn, are issues that you can improve with support. Suicide over debt is a permanent solution to what is likely a temporary problem.
3. Choose Life — Always
It can be debilitating to feel that we can never get past our financial hurdles. But remember, your debt can wait. So if you’re unable to move forward, let it wait while you refocus your efforts in saving money and reducing your living expenses.
4. Remember That You Have Rights
The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you.
If you are considering harming yourself because of a threat made by a debt collector, try to empower and protect yourself against illegal practices.
Final Thoughts on Suicide Over Debt
Always remember that debt is not a death sentence, and that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, no matter how overwhelming or embarrassing it may feel. Finding solutions and staying alive is, in the end, a much greater reward.
Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown.