Emerge: How can we emerge from the stigma and shame of debt?

Our Digital Coordinator Marie shares her experience of debt and mental health as part of our Emerge Series.

I truly believe that one of the only things surrounded by as much stigma as mental health is debt. This morning, there will be millions of people waking up whose first thought is about how to deal with a debt crisis. If it affects so many of us, why is it so difficult to talk about the impact of this on our daily lives? Why are debt issues such a hard thing to open up about? It seems strange to me that, in a culture obsessed with spending and accumulating material goods, talking realistically about money is still taboo. I am neither a financial or medical expert, but I do know that debt can lead to mental illness and mental illness can lead to debt. There are a massive variety of complex reasons people get into debt and, no matter the cause, there is a significant emotional and psychological impact.

At one point in my life I had a huge amount of credit card debt and my money worries were all pervading, dominating my life for years and leaving me exhausted. However, the long slog of paying it off, working the extra job, dealing with banks daily to sort out my mess and ending up with a terrible credit rating wasn’t even half as exhausting as frantically making sure that nobody around me found out. Shame probably contributed to my debt as much as my poor money management (that was ultimately the reason I fell into debt, I know this is not the case for everyone) – since I felt unable to tell people, I tried to keep up with friends and family to look as if money wasn’t an issue. Unsurprisingly this just led to more debt. Years later I found out that some of those people were in debt too and doing a similar thing.

Interestingly, eventually paying off the debt didn’t magically heal my relationship with my money or my mind – these are still works in progress. My heart still sometimes sinks when I see envelopes with a clear window, in fact I still struggle to open mail at all. I’m scared of phone calls to the extent that I rarely answer them any more. Years later , I was still on edge for much of the time, with an unrelenting feeling of impending doom and eventually diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Until recently I was obsessive about my bank account and checked it up to five times daily, worried I was going to run out of money. I am also still working on my budgeting skills since, after juggling credit for so long, dealing with income and expenditure can lead to panic.

Unless we feel comfortable having money management conversations in everyday life – including as part of school lessons which I believe is vital – how can we develop a healthier relationship with our finances? How can we teach people that there is not one ‘type’ of person that has money problems or a mental health condition? Yes, we all have to take responsibility for our own situations but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve compassion, support and guidance.

If you are in a debt crisis there are several organisations who can help, either with financial advice, mental health support or just a listening ear. It is possible to become debt free with the right plan in place and at least one person/organisation who understands. Please talk to someone. I know it is a cliche but you really aren’t alone.

Useful Links

Mind charity’s information on money and mental health

Citizen’s Advice Scotland

Step Change Debt Charity


Money Saving Expert Website

National Debt Line

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