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Living on the Edge: Debts Increase Risk of Depression and Suicide

Financially stressed man
The pathways to suicide can be influenced by many things: a history of depression, family loss, and a sense of loneliness to name a few. One common source for serious depression is financial strain.

The average American has $15,204 in credit card debt, $148,818 in mortgage debt, and $33,005 in student loan debt. Other debts further weigh on consumers, such as personal loan debt, payday loans, and auto loans.

Debt is nearly impossible to run away from, but for some, the only outlet they see is a permanent and deadly solution.

The Hidden Danger

According to new reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010. This rate equates to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

More people died from suicide than auto crashes during 2010 — a total of 38,364. Each day, suicide claims the lives of 105 people in the United States.

The CDC report stated that one contributing factor of the increase includes the recent economic downturn. The report states that historically, “suicide rates tend to correlate with business cycles, with higher rates observed during times of economic hardship.”

However staggering the results are, in reality they are likely even worse. Suicide statistics are highly underreported.

According to the CDC report, hanging was the fastest growing method of suicide.

For each statistic, there seems to be a real story more tragic than the last. One report by the DailyMail UK states that a rugby player committed suicide via hanging after getting into thousands of pounds of debt.

The 23-year-old man, Kenny Davies, took out multiple payday loans after being fired from his laboring job.

He requested a neighbor act as a co-signer on the loan. After the neighbor refused, he went into the woods and was found later that day with loan agreement paperwork in his pocket. Reports from the victim’s mother state that he was not a depressed son and was looking forward to turning his life around.

The victim is not alone in his action, so how does something of this nature happen on a larger scale?

How Debt and Depression Coincide

Dr. David Sack, CEO of Promises Treatment Center, said that debt, depression, and addiction work hand-in-hand.

“Each problem reinforces the other and creates a cycle that can be difficult to break,” he said.

Some consumers are drawn into debt because of addiction, whereas others that are strapped with debt become more depressed as the bills pile up.

“These individuals are visibly weighed down by shame and guilt surrounding their drug use and its consequences, which leads to further drug and alcohol use,” Sack said. “It can become a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Dr. Divya Kakaiya, program founder of Healthy Within Brain Health Institute, said the economic downturn impacted the baby boomer generation the most because the majority of their money was in stocks, bonds, and funds.

“They were hit the hardest economically and since many of them were nearing retirement age, the effect was very powerful on them,” she said.

Sack agrees that many factors, including the aging baby boomer population, impacts the growing suicide rates. He said it is likely that financial problems contribute to the rise in suicide rates.

“Money is essential for our survival,” Sack said. “If there’s not enough to pay the bills and the debts are piling up, the effects can trickle down to a person’s health, relationships and job, making the future appear hopeless.”

The Weight of Various Debts

A reasonable amount of debt is an accepted aspect of life. Most adult consumers have some type of debt, but the impacts of certain debts vary greatly.

For instance, David Leibowitz, founder and managing member of Lakelaw, said that mortgage debt is “less onerous” than student loans which tend to be a lifelong obligation.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist, further explains the idea.

“Debts that have more threatening consequences weigh heavier,” Lieberman said.

Since credit card debt has become more and more acceptable, the threat of credit card debt is less hazardous. On the other hand, overdue mortgage payments, which could cause a family to lose their home, are a more tangible threat.

Greg Staffa understands that danger too well.

His experience with debt-induced depression began in 2009 after a workplace injury occurred, which eventually cost him a job. After falling behind on his mortgage, he was forced to live out of his car for three years.

Before his injury, the 38-year-old Minnesota resident had very little debt. Once he lost his job, he tried to “plug all of these debt issues that seem to all come at once.”

“It’s surreal having to watch your life crumble away,” he said.

Staffa said certain debts weigh heavier on consumers depending on their current situation.

“To me, my mortgage debt was a source of pride,” he said mentioning that no one forced him to take on mortgage debt, but his job was stable and he wanted a secure home.

Lisa Bahar, a licensed clinic counselor based in Orange County, said that debts which link with debt collectors are more likely to create a stressful environment for the debtor.

Bahar said that depression can lead people to use maladaptive means of self-calming. These methods include alcohol, drugs, food, and sex. Bahar also said that debt can lead consumers to make money in unsavory means that can cause injury or are self-degrading.

Unfit outlets and jobs because of debt can have tangible effects on depressed individuals. According to Bahar, the body absorbs and deals with stress. Physical signs of depression can include a change in sleep patterns, irritability, agitation, difficulty regulating emotional, an increase or decrease in food consumption, reduced motivation, and a feeling of isolation.

Although Bahar believes suicide is an unwise decision, she does understand the desperation that can lead to it.

“The desperation of feeling as though there is no answer and one is out of control of their situation and has maxed out or drained all resources can lead someone to feel a sense of deep despair to the point that suicide feels as though it is an answer,” she said.

Debts Impact on All

For those not currently depressed or experiencing suicidal thoughts, it can seem easy to typecast those who are suffering. But Lieberman said all consumers are susceptible to debt’s impact.

She said personal debt can lead to depression — and potentially to suicide — for all consumers. The tendency for suicide only increases if the debtor is already vulnerable to depression.

“Depression comes from a sense of loss, and financial problems typically reflect loss — loss of a job, loss of an investment and so on,” Lieberman said. “Depression also comes from anger directed inward toward the self, and people who are in financial trouble often blame themselves for it.”

Staffa agrees that his depression was highly impacted by his economic standings. Certain events would have been easier to deal with during his prosperous times, but when he was homeless, the weight of everything became a heavier burden.

“For many standing on the brink of suicide and depression, it would not take much to nudge you over. Debt may be the source of the problem but something unrelated could easily be the event that triggers suicide,” Staffa said.

Lieberman said that socioeconomic status can impact how sliding into debt affects a consumer.

“The more a person relies upon status symbols of wealth for their self-worth, the more this person feels humiliated, shattered, and hopeless when they can no longer afford these symbols — from a designer handbag to a fancy car to a nice house,” she said. “Suicide may seem like the only way out of this shame or of their overwhelming debt.”

Lieberman said that for those who are used to using wealth as a means of self-identity, losing that wealth can be devastating.

For those in lower economic standing, debt can have a quicker effect.

“People in the lower class typically have less of a cushion against overwhelming debt and can more easily find themselves facing homelessness,” Lieberman said.

A Culture of Debt

Although debt impacts consumers on a personal level, it does have overarching patterns on society.

Leibowitz said depression more frequently leads to debt than debt leading to depression.

“We have seen many cases where people with depression have no idea that they are taking on debt,” he said.

Leibowitz said some of his clients try to solve their depression through shopping, which sometimes results in bankruptcy. Despite the client’s initial ideas, overspending does not solve any of the root issues. And neither does declaring bankruptcy.

“Bankruptcy solves the financial symptom but not the underlying problem,” he said. “Frequently people deal with depression with retail therapy to the point that items remain in a closet with the price tags still attached.”

Kakaiya agrees that shopping is a larger issue than most believe.

She said consumerism is the aliment of the 21st century. Over $200 billion is spent each year on advertising “seducing us to buy various products so that we develop brand loyalty and remain addicted to buying.”

She said that jokes about shopping addictions are actually very real because dopamine fixes can occur.

“Even though a person may be aware that they don’t have the money to pay for a particular item, they will still shop because they are going for the fix just as the cocaine addict would go for cocaine even though they know it creates huge problems for them,” Kakaiya said.

Staffa believes the American way is hurting society the most. He said that living paycheck to paycheck is a game that most have become good at — but it is risky.

“We have gotten so use to living on that edge and making things work but all it takes is one thing to change everything,” he said.