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First published:
14/03/2024

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Debt Awareness Week: Reasons People Don’t Get Debt Advice and How to Overcome Those Barriers

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According to findings by the Money and Pensions Service, people who need debt advice and don’t receive it usually fall into two groups: those who need advice but don’t try to get it, and those who try to get debt advice but don’t receive it. This second group can be broken down by those who tried to get advice and were unsuccessful, and those who start the process but disengaged before receiving a solution. 

Living in debt can have a profound impact on our mental health, making us feel overwhelmed, stressed, or fearful for our futures. However, despite the effect that debt can have, it’s unfortunately common that we avoid dealing with the issue – data from debt advice charity StepChange found that many of their advice clients have been in financial difficulty for over 12 months before they seek debt advice. 

Why is this the case? Avoidance is a common response to stressors, even debt, but the issue is more complex than that. The temptation might be to bury the issue out of shame and anxiety, but this is ultimately not helpful and may contribute to further debt. We may be in denial that the issue constitutes debt, or we may put it to the back of our minds because of more pressing concerns. We may consider short-term solutions, such as borrowing money from friends and family or taking out a 0% credit loan, but these ultimately won’t fix the core issue we are facing. 

For this year’s Debt Awareness Week, organised by StepChange, the theme is looking at the main barriers to getting debt advice, so we at Mental Health and Money Advice wanted to summarise the most common reasons why people don’t seek debt advice and how to overcome those barriers.

1. Shame and stigma 

For Debt Awareness Week 2023, we wrote about how debt can happen to anyone and how shame can affect our relationship with money. Shame around debt is ultimately one of the major barriers to seeking debt advice, and makes us less likely to discuss money worries with others or even ask for help. 

It’s important to remember that debt can affect anyone and that debt is more common than you might think. Last year, Debt Justice reported that 25 million people, half of all adults, are in debt or worried about falling into debt. Nearly ten million people are heavily in debt. Credit card borrowing has increased at record rates and energy debts have topped £1 billion. 

Keep in mind that help is out there. Debt advice charities such as StepChange are here to offer free, impartial advice to help you manage your debt.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety, particularly financial anxiety, can be both the cause for debt and a response to getting into debt. 

Financial anxiety, or money anxiety, is a feeling of worry about your money situation. This can include your income, your job security, your debts, and your ability to afford necessities and non-essentials. As a result, you may avoid dealing with finances and get into debt as a result. You may also develop financial anxiety because of a past or current experience with debt. 

Even feeling unable to manage your finances may contribute to debt. The Financial Capability Survey found that 39% of UK adults (20.3 million) don’t feel confident managing their money, and 11.5 million have less than £100 in savings. 

For more on financial anxiety, visit our blog.

Case Study: Lily's Experience

Lily experienced a significant decline in both her physical and mental wellbeing, exacerbated by the strains of her health conditions and the challenges brought on by debt. Living with schizophrenia, prolapsed disc back, diverticulitis, sciatica, chronic back pain, menopausal symptoms, and worsened depression during the pandemic, she also faced memory loss and endured a heart attack. Despite her initial worries, she was referred to the Advice and Support Services for help. The team guided Lily to a Community Psychiatric Nurse who aided in managing her debts through the completion of the Debt & Mental Health Evidence form.  

Notably, Lily's bank statements revealed a struggle with gambling, facilitated by apps on her phone. Through a warm referral to Gamblers Anonymous and debt management strategies, including the write-off of a significant portion of her debts of more than £2,000, we enabled her to prioritise her health and wellbeing. Lily expressed satisfaction with continuing a nominal weekly payment towards her remaining debt, which was at less than £200 by then, finding it more manageable. With her gambling under control and active engagement in mental health services, she felt empowered to close her case, expressing gratitude for the support provided.

Note: Lily was referred to the Mental Health and Money Advice Service.

3. Uncertainty if advice would help 

Financial Capability, from the Money and Pensions Service, found that several factors contribute to uncertainty if debt advice will help: a combination of scepticism in free advice (believing that it is somehow poorer in quality) and mistrust in the financial services industry in general. This leads to uncertainty in which services to trust. 

Free debt advice services are available and trustworthy, offering impartial advice to help you manage your debt. They are often funded by charities and offer evidence-based advice to help you with your finances, or help advise you where to turn if you’re unsure who can help. Advice can be provided online, over the phone or face-to-face.  

Find a free debt advisor: https://www.moneyhelper.org.uk/en/money-troubles/dealing-with-debt/use-our-debt-advice-locator 

You can find out more about dealing with debt in Mental Health and Money Advice’s debt section, or read our breakdown of this advice on our [blog here].

4. Worries about credit score 

Some debt management plans can have an impact on your credit score, making it more difficult to get credit in the future. However, keeping up with repayments via a debt management plan would look better on your credit score than having unmanaged debts or debts you are only making occasional payments toward. This means it’s better to seek debt advice and implement a debt management plan than to leave debts unmanaged. 

You can read more about free debt management plans on Mental Health and Money Advice.

5. A lack of awareness that free advice is available 

One of the biggest barriers to seeking debt advice is a lack of awareness that free, impartial debt advice is available. If you’re struggling with debt or worried that you might be at risk, it’s important to know that advice is available to you. The following organisations offer free debt advice. 

National Debtline

National Debtline provides free, independent and confidential advice about debt by phone and web chat services in England and Wales.  

Telephone: 0808 808 4000 
Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. 
Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

StepChange 

StepChange provides free, confidential advice and support to anyone worried about debt. You can contact them over the telephone or online. 

Telephone: 0800 138 1111 
Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Money and Pensions Service: Motivations and Barriers to Seeking Debt Advice 

Citizen’s Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/debt-and-money/help-with-debt/   

Debt Advice Foundation: https://www.debtadvicefoundation.org/  

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