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Severe debt can cause depression and even suicide

Some just can't seem to find a way out

By Emily Starbuck Gerson

Getting depressed over an increased debt load is normal, experts say. Typically the situation is temporary and as the debt lightens, so does the depression. There are those, however, who don't see a way out of their financial mess and become so despondent they contemplate or attempt suicide.

Credit cards, suicide and depressionToday's economic climate is enough to depress anyone:

  • A record 272,171 homes foreclosed in July 2008 alone.
  • Over the past year, the number of unemployed people increased by 1.6 million -- bringing the number of total unemployed to 8.8 million.
  • 79 million people are struggling to pay medical debt.
  • The average college student graduates with nearly $20,000 in debt.

Fortunately, there is help available. Unfortunately, not all know where to turn.

Why suicide over debt?
When the bills pile up, the mortgage rate adjusts, the credit card balance grows, or you are laid off, things can feel down-right unbearable. "Financial stress can negatively -- even severely -- impact things outside of the wallet: your health, your job and your relationships," says David Alecock, a vice president at InCharge Institute, the financial education arm of InCharge Solutions, a nonprofit credit counseling service.

There are numerous available resources to people in debt, so why would someone consider committing suicide instead of looking for outside help first? Daniel J. Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), says, "When someone is suffering from depression, their brain doesn't think logically or rationally, so they're not able to consider options. They're not able to find resources. They're not able to get out of bed let alone make a phone call. They can't take care of themselves; depression literally takes over their life."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among Americans, accounting for 1.3 percent of all deaths in the United States. An average of 89 suicides occur each day, almost 80 percent of which are males, though women attempt suicide three times more often than men.

Carrying a large amount of debt may hardly bother one person (e.g., Cindy McCain, who appears to have plenty of assets to cover her debt), but could easily cause another person to fall into despair and consider taking his or her life (e.g., someone who was used to having money and suddenly is bereft of cash through a series of unfortunate events). Following Wall Street's crash in 1929, for example, stories proliferated of people taking their lives because of their financial ruin.

Where some people have the ability to pull themselves out of a hole, others can have a harder time and may resort to desperate measures. For example, those who have a history of mental illness or chemical dependency are much more likely to commit suicide, Reidenberg says. Additionally, people experiencing major stressors such as job loss, family pressure, illness, or loss due to death, divorce, or a child going to college may be more prone to depressive behavior. These factors and several others can increase the likelihood "that a financial burden will put them over the edge and lead them to an attempt," Reidenberg says.

Warning signs of suicidal tendencies
  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Returning borrowed items.
  • Talking, writing, reading about death or looking up information about death online.
  • Hopelessness and purposelessness.
  • Loss of interest in things one used to care about.
  • Tying up loose ends and making arrangements.
  • Increase in substance abuse.
  • Restlessness or irritability.
  • Reckless behavior.
  • Suddenly appearing very calm or happy.
  • Source: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

Debt and death in the news
News reports from across the globe tell of desperate acts by debtors in over the heads. For example, Carlene Balderrama, a 53-year-old Massachusetts woman, was distraught when her home was foreclosed. She hid her family's money problems from her husband and blamed herself for mismanaging the finances, so in late July 2008, 90 minutes before her home was auctioned off, she killed herself with one of her husband's hunting rifles.

According to reports, her suicide note said she had become too overwhelmed, and that she wanted her family to use her insurance money to pay off the debt and keep the house. She neglected to realize that life insurance typically does not cover suicide. Her family may never see that money. It turns out Balderrama 's problems weren't just financial; her husband told authorities that his wife was distraught when her three brothers all recently died of illness, and became even more so when her widowed mother passed away. She was also on medication that may have worsened her depression. Compounded with the debt, Balderrama felt completely hopeless.

The same month, 62-year-old Emilio Saladriagas of New Jersey was so distraught by late payment notices, that he walked into his local Rent-A-Center, poured lighter fluid all over his body and set himself on fire. He survived the incident, but was immediately placed in critical condition at a burn unit.

For a decade now, there has been a trend in India of debt-ridden farmers killing themselves; many are using their own pesticides to end their lives. In the making of his "Maxed Out" documentary about credit cards, James Scurlock talked to dozens of people who incurred major debt for every reason, from lack of self-control to predatory lending abuse.

Scurlock publicly stated that everyone he talked to in the making of the film had considered suicide at least once. His film features the stories of two college students who got in over their heads with credit cards, couldn't pay them off, and killed themselves. When he presented the film at the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, viewers chimed in about desperate clients who threatened to kill themselves over debt.

And in February 2008, Oprah Winfrey featured a woman on her show who had four children with her husband and seemed to be living the high life. They lived in a large home, took luxurious vacations, and shopped constantly. Then her husband got reckless: He bought a motorcycle instead of paying the mortgage and hid the mail so his wife couldn't keep track of bills. Then one day, she came home and found her husband dead in the garage from suicide. She learned that he canceled his $300,000 life insurance policy three months earlier and stopped paying the mortgage. She was left with $450,000 in mortgage debt, $17,000 in credit card debt in her name, and $40,000 to $50,000 in debt from her husband's credit cards.  She had no idea her husband was in that deep of a hole, or that he was even contemplating suicide.

What can we learn from these stories? "I think people should realize that debt doesn't have to result in suicide," Reidenberg says. "Too often, people are feeling because of the financial stresses that their only way out of their debt is death. Sometimes they think their family would be better off because of that, and most often, they're not; they're far worse.

"You are certainly not the only one affected by your death: According to a 2005 statistic from the American Association of Suicidology, one person's suicide directly impacts at least six other people.

Helping a loved one
How can you know if a loved one in debt is contemplating ending their life? There are many warning signs you should look for, Reidenberg says, including giving away prized possessions, making arrangements for wills and pets, talking about death, tearfulness and increased substance abuse. See the sidebar for more warning signs.

There are many ways you can help someone in despair over debt. Reidenberg says you should offer to look at informational websites with them, offer to take them to the doctor, speak to the clergy together, or even just spend extra time with them.

"When someone is really depressed, they're not thinking logically and may not have the energy to do anything," Reidenberg says. "You have to be the eyes and ears for them; you have to help them through it. You can listen, offer support, offer resources, take them places, check in with them and schedule times to talk every day."

He also recommends setting up a baseline assessment, so you can ask "How are you doing today on a scale of one through 10?" Monitor their numbers over time. Certain events, such as the arrival of a credit card bill, can cause an increase in stress, so you should have an agreement about what number warrants seeking outside help. For example, if the number hits eight, it is time to go to the hospital. "Plan and participate in getting them through the stress," Reisenberg says.

Debt and depression resources

SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education): The SAVE website has guides on coping with loss, information about the link between suicide and depression, facts about suicide prevention, a suggested reading list, and a list of online resources

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call (800) 273-TALK (8255) if you fear you may hurt yourself, need to get something off your chest, are worried about a loved one who may commit suicide, or want a referral to local mental health services. The website also has helpful information.

National Foundation for Credit Counseling: The NFCC is a collection of credit and debt counseling agencies that require certain amounts of training and accreditation. All member organizations are nonprofit and community-based. If you need budget counseling and education, debt management plans, financial literacy courses, housing counseling or counseling referral services, use the NFCC's member agency locator to find someone nearby.

InCharge's debt stress calculator: This nonprofit credit counseling company has a calculator that will tell you how severe your financial stress is, relate it to the financial stress of others in the country and help you create a personalized budget.

Don't let the debt control you
"The biggest mistake people make is to allow problems with debt to control their lives, rather than controlling their debt," Alecock says. "The most important first step the debt-distressed can take is to admit that they have a problem. That's actually a very tough thing to do for many of us," he says.

If you need someone to help you come to terms with this, Reidenberg says speaking to a therapist is a good first step, though meeting with a member of the clergy may be more helpful for some people. The next step is to determine the level of your debt problems, Alecock says, by writing down take-home pay, all your monthly expenses including debt and the payments you owe every month.

"It sounds obvious, but you need to take a cold, hard look at whether what is going out each month is exceeding what you take in. If it does, it's time to take further steps to get back in control of your debt," Alecock says.

Whether you crunch those numbers yourself or want someone to help you, calling a debt counseling service is another step in the right direction. A counselor will help you prioritize your way out of debt, Reisenberg says.

He adds: "When things are spinning that far out of control, before they emotionally start becoming drained, they need to talk to someone who can help them gain control of the situation."

Alecock, who sees the benefits of credit counseling every day, says, "A responsible nonprofit credit counseling agency will provide you with a free and honest assessment of your debt problem, and a determination of what you can really afford to pay back each month." The agency will provide you with every possible option to get out of debt, possibly including a debt management plan, in which the credit counselor negotiates an arrangement with your creditors to pay off your debt over time with less if any penalties.

Alecock's agency has dealt with a suicidal debtor before, and he wants people to know that it is possible to set yourself free in a safe way. "People need to know there are many options available today to get back in control of their debt -- there's credit counseling, shifting debt to lower interest cards, negotiating with your creditors directly, or in a worse case, even bankruptcy," Alecock says.

Support and crisis help
If you find yourself in a position where you fear you may harm yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK. While you can call them in a crisis, the operators also act as a general resource and referral line. "The way it is designed, it automatically routes your call to their closest call or crisis center in your area," Reidenberg says. "They have local resources for you. Those can be from credit counseling to debt management to a therapist to social workers to doctors to free clinics." They will help you figure out where to start on the path of debt freedom.

"If someone is really starting to struggle with anxiety and depression, and they go to a source that can give them a sense of, 'OK, I can get help, I can get control over this, there are resources available to me,' there is a much better likelihood that you can prevent them from taking that next step to planning a suicide attempt or dying," Reidenberg says.

While Alecock strongly believes in the help a credit counseling agency can offer to those in debt, he also encourages people considering suicide to call a suicide prevention hotline first.

People experiencing severe depression from debt may feel as if no one understands what they are going through. Fortunately, many support groups exist where you can meet people in similar circumstances. On the site MeetUp.com, you can find local meetings for credit workshops, sessions for foreclosure help, debt-proof living and bankruptcy support groups. They are not necessarily anonymous, but you do not have to reveal your name if you choose not to.

For those who have compulsive spending problems, there is Debtors' Anonymous, a 12-step program that provides direct support and financial guidance. "We are debtors, and this ranges from housewives to executives to people who are homeless. It's there to benefit anybody," says Donna D., a leader of the Austin, Texas, chapter of Debtors' Anonymous. People "usually come in because of credit card debt, but it's also other forms of unsecured debt -- the ongoing family and friend loans; friends and family bailing them out of financial disasters. Just living on that revolving unsecured credit and never being able to make ends meet, always in an obsession about financial survival," she says.

The group members help each other by recording everything they spend, discussing financial fears and sharing suggestions. They also help each other create spending plans, which are similar to budgets, and have sponsors who act as mentors and talk about their visions for the future. Most importantly, it is anonymous. 

If you do not feel comfortable sharing your problems in person, consider online support groups. iVillage, a website for women, has a major message board section with many debt categories, including a debt support group where people share their stories and receive advice and encouragement.

Don't wait to get help
While suicide may sound like the easy route when you are sinking under thousands of dollars of debt, its effects are permanent and will monumentally affect those who care about you. If you are feeling hopeless, remember that it is possible for things to get better.  Don't wait until you hit rock bottom to begin seeking resources. "People feeling overwhelmed by debt need to talk to somebody and do it sooner rather than later," Reidenberg says. "There are many resources available and they should take advantage of them, because they can get through this."

Published: September 8, 2008



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