More than a quarter of people in Northern Ireland are struggling to pay off personal debts, a new report has claimed.
They owe an estimated £55 million to credit card, mortgage and loan companies, according to an advice organisation. Half of them are suffering mental health issues, it was revealed.
Advice NI chief executive Bob Stronge said: "Every day our dedicated advisers see the human impact of the continued economic downturn with debt levels rising, concerns over welfare reform growing and more and more people being affected.
"For example, in the last year we dealt with an increase of 7% in demand for our Debt Action NI service, with 2,200 people with nearly £55 million of debt being helped through a difficult situation."
Advice NI said it had received requests from 270,000 people seeking help during the past year - a rise of 70,000 since 2008. Over half of them were homeowners.
The increase in people dealing with debt has led to calls for Stormont ministers to add an extra clause to the Welfare Reform Bill to include a statutory right to free independent advice for anyone affected by recent benefit reforms.
Mr Stronge added: "We have serious concerns regarding the spread of payday loans and a worrying lack of understanding of the new welfare system by those on whom it will impact most.
"That's why we are calling on the Executive to include a statutory right to free independent advice for all those affected by the changes, so that people can find their way through these changes without being adversely affected."
Meanwhile, it has also emerged that £13 million of benefits were claimed by eligible people over the past 12 months. The figure includes £7 million for pensioners and is three times the number of benefit claims for 2011.
Mr Stronge said: "The Benefit Uptake direct targeting exercise has put more money into the pockets of many older people across Northern Ireland, with the average weekly amount of additional benefit generated being £61.80 per person."