Is Debt Making You Sick?

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This is part of a Globe series that explores our growing reliance on credit – from the average household to large institutions – and the looming risks for a nation addicted to cheap money. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #DebtBinge

As Cait Flanders’ bills increased, so did her stress.

Flanders, then 25, was so worried about her money problems that her credit card statements made her sick. So she ignored them and continued to make minimum payments without looking at the balance. Denial, however, has done little to alleviate the chronic discomfort. His debt weighed on his health. She gained 20 pounds. She was having trouble sleeping.

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By 2011, when Flanders finally had the courage to review her financial statements, she had almost hit her credit card limit and had accumulated a total debt of over $ 28,000, much of which was debt to the bank. consumption.

“I remember sitting on my bed and my hands were shaking, and I just started crying,” says Flanders, now 29, of Port Moody, BC. She felt depressed for a while afterward. “I just remember lying in my bed and feeling like a loser.”

Across the country, Canadians are falling into more debt. In the last quarter of 2014, the ratio of Canadians’ credit market debt to disposable income reached a record 163.3%, which means we owe $ 1.63 in mortgages, other loans and debt. credit cards for every dollar of disposable income. The imbalance doesn’t just hurt our bank accounts; we can get sicker as a result.

Financial stress from debt isn’t just linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and a higher risk of suicide. Recent research suggests that it can also negatively affect our physical health, potentially putting us at a greater risk of developing high blood pressure and stroke (the third leading cause of death in Canada after cancer and heart disease) . As the health consequences of financial stress become more evident, researchers and health professionals advocate for treating personal debt as a public health problem.

But does debt compare to, say, obesity, poverty or drug addiction?

“Absolutely,” says Dr. Donna Ferguson, a psychologist in the Workplace Stress and Health Program at the Toronto Center for Addiction and Mental Health.

“I think this is a major crisis. It is a problem that needs to be resolved.”

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Ferguson says financial stress plays a significant role in the incidence of suicide among middle-aged Canadians. She suggests that healthcare professionals can get more involved in managing their patients’ financial stress and even take steps to help them manage their money. Although she recognizes that financial planning has never been a part of her professional training, Ferguson often finds herself helping clients develop budget plans, in addition to providing traditional interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Financial advice, she concedes, is technically “not my role,” but she feels obligated when money management is critical to a client’s recovery.

“I treat depression. I treat anxiety. But for me, I feel like you have to get to the root,” she says. When it comes to personal debt, she adds, “you can deal around that. But if things aren’t improving, you have to ask yourself, “Well, what’s missing? “”

His approach to his clients’ money problems is informal, but in Britain researchers such as Chris Fitch are struggling to address the health implications of debt through more organized efforts.

In a 2009 article, published in the journal Mental Health in Family Medicine, Fitch and colleagues noted that a government-led workshop of representatives from the health sector, government and the financial sector recommended that all professionals health workers ask their patients about financial problems during a routine check-up. UPS. If patients have reported being in debt, “primary care professionals should systematically assess depression and other common mental disorders.” In addition, the workshop called for ‘debt first aid’ training for healthcare professionals, which would teach them how to talk to patients about their finances, support them and refer them to healthcare services. indebtedness.

Meanwhile, the financial industry should be aware of the existence of clients with mental health issues, the newspaper reported, as one in four UK adults with mental health issues was also in debt.

Since the article was published, Fitch and his colleagues at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London and the charity Money Advice Trust have been offering advice to healthcare professionals on how to settle their patients ‘debts and training on how to settle their patients’ debts. creditors on how to treat clients with mental health problems. -health problems or are otherwise vulnerable. (This advice and training is not widely available in Canada, although Cary List, President and CEO of the Financial Planning Standards Council, says the financial planning community in Canada is looking to connect with professionals from across the country. health to deal with financial stress.)

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As Fitch explained in an email, there are many reasons why personal debt is treated as a public health issue. People struggling with debt are twice as likely to develop major depression, and the more debt they are, the more likely they are to have mental health problems. Debt makes it harder for people with mental health problems to recover, it is linked to other problems, such as poor physical health and addiction, and people with mental health problems are more likely to have a harder time getting over their debts.

Being in debt, however, is not universally stressful, and therefore not always bad for your health.

“Debt is neither good nor bad,” says Scott Hannah, president and CEO of the Credit Counseling Society in New Westminster, British Columbia. The problem, he says, is that we have become a nation that feels increasingly comfortable with debt, which allows people to fall dangerously into the red. In previous generations, people paid off their mortgages before retiring and used credit cards for emergencies and avoided carrying a balance. This is no longer the reality.

“With home secured lines of credit, we use our homes as an ATM,” says Hannah.

It is still not clear which types of debt cause the most stress. At the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Assistant Professor Elizabeth Sweet in the Department of Anthropology is trying to unravel the many variables that can make debt a health hazard. For example, she notes, people may feel less stressed about mortgages and student loans than about credit card debt or payday loans.

Although she is still in the early stages of research, she notes that accumulating debt is not simply a matter of individual choice or will. Losing a job, major home repairs and the cost of illness can put people in the red. And some people also think that they are doing the right thing and building their credit by taking out loans, but the information they need to take control of their finances is not always available in an interpretable way. , explains Sweet.

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Employers can play a role in helping employees recover or avoid the stress of debt as they increasingly focus on supporting workers’ mental and physical health, says Mark Henick, program manager from Mental Health Works of the Canadian Mental Health Association. (Some employee assistance programs, for example, include debt counseling.) But doctors may still need to be convinced to intervene in their patients’ finances.

“I think sometimes doctors think, ‘I’m not an accountant. Why should I ask about someone’s finances? But it’s the number one cause of stress for most people, ”he says.

For Flanders, taking control of her $ 28,000 debt also prompted her to take better care of her physical health. She blogged to chronicle her refund process, Blonde on a Budget. And in early 2012, about 10 months after reviewing her credit reports, she paid off about $ 13,000 and started exercising and eating healthier.

“As soon as I saw that I could take control of one thing, I could take control of another,” she says. As of June 2013, she was no longer in debt and had successfully lost 30 pounds. Today, she is in good financial and physical shape.

“I am [in] a position totally opposite to what I was four years ago. I have no debts, I have savings, I have investments. I train, I walk. I’m taking more care of myself. “

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